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Food Safety for Your Active Summer

Susan M. Kleiner, PhD, RD


Leading an active life often means eating on the go, especially in summer. But just as summer weather helps our gardens grow, it makes the growing easy for bacteria that can cause foodborne illnesses or food poisoning.

Symptoms of food poisoning can be mild or severe, often occur suddenly, and can include abdominal cramps, headache, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. Botulism poisoning stands alone in severity and is often fatal. Danger signs of botulism are a medical emergency and include double vision, weakening of muscles, and difficulty swallowing and breathing.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that almost one quarter of all food poisoning cases are from foods prepared at home. The following guidelines will help keep you healthy.

Equal-Opportunity Microbes

Salmonella, trichinella, hepatitis, clostridium, and Escherichia coli (E coli) are the most infamous microbes. Although these germs infect whatever host is available, salmonella is generally associated with poultry and eggs (see "Egg Safety," below), the trichinosis parasite can infest undercooked pork, the hepatitis microbe and other toxins can be present in raw fish, and the bacteria clostridium and E coli can contaminate beef.

You might think that if you eliminate meat from your diet you've eliminated the major food-poisoning culprits. Not true. You can get food poisoning from any food, including fruits and vegetables. The major cause of food poisoning is improper handling by the preparer—who could be you! Poor sanitation—specifically, unwashed hands—can cause contamination. (See "Food Safety Guidelines" below.)

E coli. E coli has moved on from its traditional host, undercooked meat, to plant products such as unpasteurized fruit juices, raspberries, and lettuce. E coli can cause severe diarrhea, renal failure, and even death.

The source of E coli contamination is fecal matter; therefore, the first step in eliminating E coli contamination is washing hands before preparing food. Then, wash fruits and vegetables thoroughly. For lettuce, completely submerge it in a bowl of water, then flush it under running water.

Keep food chilled until it's time to prepare and eat it. Microbes multiply as readily on poorly cleansed or unchilled plant products as on undercooked and unrefrigerated meats or dairy-based foods.

Kitchen Cautions

Cross-contamination of foods can happen when cutting boards, knives, and other utensils are not thoroughly cleaned. Use different cutting boards for raw and cooked animal products (or wash them between uses), and cut vegetables and fruits on another board. Wash knives and other utensils after preparing raw foods. It's preferable to use plastic cutting boards, especially for animal products. Plastic cutting boards can be put in the dishwasher or easily cleaned with soap and hot water.

Blenders and food processors can be trouble spots if they're not washed properly. Food gets stuck around the blades and between the rubber gaskets and becomes a prime breeding site for bacteria. The only way to adequately clean these appliances is to take them apart and rinse them with soap and water.

Summer Safety

Picnic weather falls within the 60°F to 125°F "danger zone" that allows rapid growth of bacteria and production of toxins. In a warm, moist environment, E coli can double in population every 20 minutes. So, to avoid contamination, keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold, and don't hold foods at temperatures in the danger zone for more than 2 hours. Never defrost food at room temperature; instead, transfer it from freezer to refrigerator, allowing plenty of time for complete thawing.

When eating outside, keep food covered to avoid contact with flies. Flying insects can carry bacteria and contaminate food.

Fruit juice is popular during the summer months. Because pasteurization kills germs, you should always choose pasteurized juices, and always keep fruit juice cold.

When cooking meat, especially beef, leave no pink in the center. Use a meat thermometer to make sure the center has reached at least 160°F.

Even though raw or partially cooked fish or meat such as sushi and steak tartare are culinary delights, there is a risk to eating them. They must remain properly chilled until served; don't try to take them to a picnic. If you are going to eat these kinds of foods, choose experienced, reputable sources.

Rules for the Road

Keep bag lunches cool. Use a thermal lunch bag, and pack frozen plastic beverage bottles or pouches. They'll keep the food cool and will be ready to drink after they've thawed. Avoid packing salads with chopped ingredients that can be a haven for bacteria. Sandwiches that contain meats and mayonnaise should be kept cold.

Aged cheeses like cheddar and Swiss or yogurt in sealed containers can be unrefrigerated for 1 to 2 hours. The best foods for bag lunches are fresh fruits and vegetables, breads, crackers, and peanut butter.

Egg Safety

The raw-egg milkshake is a health hazard and offers no real benefit for muscle building. Instead, use 1/4 cup milk powder to add protein and calcium. (Reminder: Raw eggs are also in cookie dough and pancake batter, so avoid nibbling until after baking.) For recipes like eggnog in which the eggs are not cooked, use a pasteurized egg product. In addition:
  • Handle eggs safely. Buy clean, intact, odor-free, fresh eggs that have been refrigerated. Throw out any cracked or broken eggs.
  • Keep eggs refrigerated. They will stay fresh for 4 to 5 weeks at 45°F.
  • Refrigerate eggs in the cases in which you bought them to avoid unnecessary handling and to insulate them from any nearby food odors.
  • Cook eggs thoroughly. After preparation, keep egg dishes colder than 40°F or hotter than 140°F.
  • Before and after handling, wash everything that comes into contact with eggs, especially raw ones. That includes your hands, mixing bowls, utensils, and pots and pans.

Food Safety Guidelines

  • Wash hands before preparing food.
  • Wash all fruits and vegetables thoroughly.
  • Use plastic cutting boards, especially for animal products.
  • Use separate cutting boards, knives, and utensils for raw and cooked animal products.
  • Store partially used canned goods, including juices, in glass or plastic containers.
  • Keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold. Don't hold foods in the "danger zone" (60°F to 125°F) for more than 2 hours.
  • Throw out foods that mold, even though you might not see the mold throughout the food. Growing mold can be invisible.
  • Cook animal foods, including fish, poultry, eggs, and meat, until well done (at least 160°F).
  • Don't eat leftovers that are over 3 days old unless they've been frozen. Defrost food in the refrigerator, not on the counter.

Remember, you, your physician, and your nutritionist need to work together to discuss nutrition concerns. The above information is not intended as a substitute for appropriate medical treatment.

Dr Kleiner is owner of High Performance Nutrition where she is a nutrition consultant to athletes in the Seattle area. She is a member of the American College of Sports Medicine; a member of the American Dietetic Association and its practice group, Sports, Cardiovascular, and Wellness Nutritionists (SCAN); and a fellow of the American College of Nutrition.




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