Don’t Invite Food Poisoning to Your Summer Fun

As we dive into the barbeque, picnic and camping season, we get to enjoy cooking and eating al fresco – outdoors, under the stars, in parks, at the beach, on decks and in backyards. Americans love grilling, picnics and the seasonal foods that accompany outdoor dining. And if we’re careful with food preparation, handling, storage, heating and cooling, it can be wonderful. But outdoor cooking and eating poses potential hazards from contaminants, bacteria and other nasties resulting from improper storage, handling or heating. Nobody wants a fun summer picnic to end at the emergency room or by paying homage to the porcelain altar, but there are basic rules that will prevent an unhappy ending.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimates that 48 million people get sick every year from a foodborne illness; 128,000 are hospitalized, and 3,000 die. Researchers have identified more than 250 foodborne diseases — most of them are infections caused by a variety of bacteria, viruses and parasites. Some harmful toxins and chemicals also can contaminate foods and cause foodborne illness, but poor handling, washing, storage and improper cooking techniques typically are the culprits.

The most common symptoms of food poisoning include:

  • Upset stomach
  • Stomach cramps
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Fever

After you consume a contaminated food or drink, it may take hours or days before you develop symptoms. Most people have only mild illnesses, lasting a few hours or days. However, some people need to be hospitalized, and certain food-related illnesses can result in long-term health problems or even death. Infections transmitted by food can lead to chronic arthritis, brain and nerve damage, and hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS), which causes kidney failure.

How to Eat Healthy in the Summer

To start, all fresh or packaged fresh vegetables and fruit must be washed before consuming. For expediency, it’s smart to rinse fruits and vegetables before placing them in your picnic basket, since not all outdoor destinations offer clean, fresh water. Keep cold food in a cooler with ice or freezer packs at a temperature of 40 degrees or colder.

Keeping foods at the proper temperature is an important way to prevent the growth of foodborne bacteria. The danger zone for foods is between 40 degrees and 140 degrees, which are ideal temperatures for bacteria to multiply and increase your chances of foodborne illness. That’s why perishable cold foods — like potato salad, deviled eggs, and dips and dishes made with dairy or mayonnaise — should be kept in a cooler at 40 degrees or below. Hot foods should be kept hot, preferably at 140 degrees or above. To be safe, throw away any perishable items that have been left out for more than two hours (one hour if the outside temperature is higher than 90 degrees).

Also, when organizing a cooler, make sure meat, poultry and seafood are well wrapped to avoid cross contamination with prepared foods and fruits and vegetables. It’s also a good idea to keep a second cooler for storing beverages so the cooler can be opened and closed more frequently without exposing perishable foods to warmer temperatures.

Practice Safe Grilling

Marinate foods ahead of time in the refrigerator, not on a kitchen counter or outside. Also, don’t reuse platters or serving utensils that have handled raw meat, poultry or seafood. And always check to make sure you’ve cooked food thoroughly — a food thermometer is a handy and advisable tool.

Heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) are chemicals formed when meat, including beef, pork, fish, and poultry, is cooked using high-temperature methods such as pan frying or grilling directly over an open flame. The formation of HCAs and PAHs is influenced by the type of meat, the cooking time, the cooking temperature, and the cooking method.

HCAs are formed when amino acids (the building blocks of proteins), sugars, and creatine (a substance found in muscle) react at high temperatures. PAHs are formed when fat and juices from meat grilled directly over an open fire drip onto the fire, causing flames. These flames contain PAHs that then adhere to the surface of the meat. PAHs can also be formed during other food preparation processes, such as smoking of meats.

Exposure to high levels of HCAs and PAHs can cause cancer in animals. Currently, no Federal guidelines address consumption levels of HCAs and PAHs formed in meat. HCA and PAH formation can be reduced by avoiding direct exposure of meat to an open flame or a hot metal surface, reducing the cooking time, and using a microwave oven or standard oven to partially cook meat before exposing it to high temperatures. HCAs are not found in significant amounts in foods other than meat cooked at high temperatures. PAHs can be found in other charred foods, as well as in cigarette smoke and car exhaust fumes.

Here are some tips for reducing exposure to potentially damaging chemicals produced through cooking over an open flame:

  • Use a microwave or standard oven to pre-cook meat prior to exposure to high temperatures. This can substantially reduce HCA formation by reducing the time that meat must be in contact with high heat to finish cooking.
  • Continuously turn meat over on a high heat source to reduce HCA formation, compared with just leaving the meat on the heat source without flipping it often
  • Remove charred portions of meat, such as the skin from chicken, and refrain from using gravy made from meat drippings, which also contain HCA and PAH.
  • Consider steaming fish and vegetables in foil, rather than grilling over an open flame.

This isn’t to rain on our summer picnics — summer eating isn’t harmful if we are aware of the potential for contamination and practice careful and safe preparation, storage and thorough heating.


Be sure to check out the CBIA Healthy Connections wellness program at your company’s next renewal. It’s free as part of your participation in CBIA Health Connections!