With the first summer holiday weekend set to begin with the end of the workday today, picnic baskets and grills are already on standby as people across America look forward to outdoor dining as part of their Memorial Day weekend activities. Unfortunately, pathogens are poised to spoil the food and fun. Warm weather, traditional summertime foods, family reunions and gatherings of friends far and wide can combine to create dangerous and sometimes deadly scenes, especially for elderly people, young children, pregnant women and people with suppressed immune systems. Those groups are most likely to succumb to illnesses caused by foodborne pathogens and usually suffer from more severe symptoms than healthy adults, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. However, there are simple, easy steps to help Americans stay safe as they indulge in whipped cream fruit salads, deviled eggs and grilled meat and chicken, according to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service. “From picnics to cookouts, eating outside is a fun and tasty way to enjoy the warmer weather,” registered dietitian nutritionist and Academy spokesperson Torey Armul said in a news release. “Be sure to follow proper food safety practices every step of the way to keep unwanted bacteria from crashing your party.” FSIS reminds people that barbecuing foods safely means making sure that the grill is hot enough and that frozen meats, poultry and fish are properly thawed before being cooked. Start with clean hands The first step to preparing a safe and healthy meal is clean hands. Always wash your hands before and after handling any foods. Be sure to wash them during food preparation, too, when switching from handling raw meat to chopping raw vegetables for salad. When you’re eating outdoors, you may not have access to soap and water. Experts recommend using hand sanitizer with a minimum of 60 percent alcohol when clean running water isn’t readily available. If soap and water are not available, use hand sanitizer and paper towels and then use hand sanitizer again, allowing your hands to air dry before eating or handling food. Also, clean and sanitize coolers, picnic baskets and tote bags because they can be a breeding ground for bacteria. Separate raw meats, poultry and seafood from RTE foods If you are planning to cook food outside, separate raw meats, poultry and seafood from other ready-to-eat (RTE) foods. Use one cooler for raw meats and another for RTE foods such as fruits, vegetables, cheese and desserts. Take two sets of plates and utensils for handling raw meats and for serving cooked foods to limit the chances of cross-contamination. Use a food thermometer All food must be cooked to a safe internal temperature to kill harmful bacteria, and a food thermometer is the only way to make sure that food has reached this temperature. Remember to pack the food thermometer and download a free Is My Food Safe? mobile app for a complete list of cooking temperatures. Keep the cooler cool Pack perishable food in a cooler to help it stay cold. Keep the cooler in the shade and the lid closed. Freeze bottles of water or juice boxes for a refreshing treat that will also help keep foods packed around them cooler. It’s also a good idea to pack a thermometer in the cooler to make sure that it stays at 40 degrees F or lower. Refrigerate or toss after two hours — or 60 minutes if it’s really hot outside When everyone’s had a turn in the chow line, return perishable foods to coolers or refrigerators within two hours. Experts say cut that to one hour if the ambient temperature is higher than 90 degrees F. The clock starts as soon as your food is taken off the grill or out of the cooler. Set an alarm to keep track of the time. If you have food safety questions, FSIS recommends contacting “Ask Karen,” the agency’s 24/7 virtual representative, at AskKaren.gov, or call the USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline and speak with a live representative, in English or Spanish, at 1-888-674-6854. You can also visit www.foodsafety.gov for safety information on all types of foods.
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