5 summer food poisoning risks and how to avoid them

Barbecuing hamburgers, leaving potato salad out in the hot sun, and mixing up a fruit salad. You’re preparing for summertime picnics and patio meals but are you aware of common food poisoning risks?

“There are reasons why we tend to get sick more often from food poisoning in the summer than in the winter. It’s so warm out and it’s less forgiving in terms of bacteria growth, we barbecue more, we leave things out more,” Dr. Keith Warriner, a  University of Guelph professor and food safety researcher, told Global News.

READ MORE: 5 things a Canadian food safety expert will never eat

“In the summertime, incidents of food-borne illnesses increase quite substantially. It’s largely associated with our desire and frequency of cooking and eating outdoors. We just don’t have the same temperature and hygiene control under these circumstances and we have to be more vigilant,” Dr. Rick Holley, a veteran food safety expert and University of Manitoba professor emeritus, said.

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For every two- to three-degree increase in temperature, the rate of bacteria growth increases by up to 50 per cent.

We know you’ll be outdoors grilling, picnicking and keeping groceries in your trunk or on your kitchen table a bit longer. Here’s a look at the five most common food poisoning risks and how you can steer clear of them.

Undercooking meat

There’s nothing tastier than barbecue in the summer, but make sure you’re properly handling your meats.

“In the summer, we barbecue and the No. 1 cause of food poisoning is under cooking meat. With under cooking, we tend to just heat the outside and the inside is still raw. This is especially risky with poultry,” Warriner said.

READ MORE: Here’s why fruit smoothies are causing a hepatitis A outbreak in the U.S.

Salmonella, campylobacter, and E.coli are all germs that could get you sick. In some cases, you only need a small dose.

Solution: Make sure you’re cooking all of your meats thoroughly, with an emphasis on chicken. If you’re defrosting meats, you need to make sure they’re thawed throughout.

There are some generic rules, according to Holley: roasts should reach 63 C, hamburgers at 71 C and 74 C for poultry. Have a thermometer on hand if needed.

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Temperature abuse

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Think about your creamy potato and pasta salads, chicken wings doused in barbecue sauce and sour cream, mayonnaise and condiments sitting out in the hot sun all afternoon.

Digging into side dishes that have been sitting out all day spells trouble – Warriner calls it temperature abuse and it’s the second major culprit when it comes to summertime food poisoning cases.

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“At a time when you’ve got high temperatures, [bacteria] is going to grow prolifically. Clostridium perfringen doubles in number every five minutes. It doesn’t take long before it gets dangerous,” Warriner said.

If you’re dealing with fresh produce that hasn’t been cooked with heat, you’re likely encountering some microbial content. Throw in your hands while cooking – there’s germs on you, too – and factor in high temperatures for a few hours, and you’ve got a recipe for food poisoning.

Solution: Keep your salads and condiments refrigerated and cool and don’t let them sit out in the sun for any more than two hours.

Warriner even recommends keeping ingredients separate if you’re making a potato salad, for example. If you’re keeping food outdoors, let the bowl sit in an ice bath to keep temperature as cool as possible.

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Holley suggests bringing a cooler filled with ice and frozen gel packs to keep dishes cold.

Cross contamination

Plates, utensils, tabletop surfaces – are you guilty of cross contaminating while cooking outdoors or in your kitchen? It happens so easily, the trio of experts say.

“A good example is someone who uses a plate for raw steak with E.coli on it. They put the meat on the barbecue then they put the cooked steak back on the same plate,” Warriner said.

READ MORE: 9 tips for healthy summertime barbecuing

“In the kitchen, we have the proximity to a sink and potable water, but it takes a little more organization when you’re cooking outdoors and away from the convenience of the kitchen,” Holley said.

Solution: Keep separate plates and utensils for raw items and cooked items. Err on the side of caution – if you can’t remember if your forks and knives touched raw meat while barbecuing, you’re better off grabbing a new set.

Keeping produce for too long

You may be chopping up vegetables and fruits for salads, but keep a watchful eye on how long you’re stashing these cut ingredients.

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When produce is chopped up for convenience, the juices in the fruits and vegetables aren’t compartmentalized anymore because their cell walls are broken. Now, bacteria can grow at room temperature as they mix and mingle.

READ MORE: How much sugar and how many calories are in your summertime drink?

With sprouts, seeds can be contaminated with salmonella, E.coli, or listeria. They’re stored for days at a time, allowing the seeds to grow, but also giving room for bacteria to fester in the seeds’ moisture. It’s the “perfect broth” for food-borne illnesses.

Solution: If you’re preparing a salad with cut tomatoes, cucumbers, spinach and other ingredients, try not to keep for more than two days in the fridge. If the greens start browning, it may be a telltale sign to toss them out.

“It’s my indicator that it’s time to put it in the garbage or compost,” Holley said.

Fruits are different. Some with low pH values like oranges, grapefruits or lemons hold up for much longer because of their acidic content. This isn’t the case for melons, though.

“Cantaloupes are responsible for pretty horrendous food-borne illnesses in the U.S. from listeria. It is wise to peel these products, slice them and consume them rapidly. If that’s not possible in a couple of hours, put them in waterproof bags and in a cooler full of ice,” he suggested.

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Never place strawberries, blueberries or blackberries in the fridge, Warriner said. It creates condensation which only leads to mould.

Keep food cold

You may be guilty of grocery shopping and then keeping your haul in the trunk of your car or on your kitchen table. This is bad news, the experts say.

“Typically in the winter, it’s below 10 C when you bring something back to the supermarket. Inside a car in the summer, it can get up to 40 C or more, which is just ideal for these pathogens to grow,” Holley said.

READ MORE: How much sugar should you be eating? How to follow WHO guidelines

Salmonella can fester within 40 minutes, E. coli within 20 and Clostridium perfringen within 10 minutes, Warriner said.

Solution: When you get home, don’t let your groceries sit at room temperature for more than two hours. And make sure they’re in a cool and dry place while they’re in your car, even if it means travelling with a cooler.

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