Precautions to Avoid Foodborne Illness

Memorial Day is the start of picnic season and warm weather! Though it’s great for fun with our family and friends, it is not great for some of the foods we enjoy.

Each year 48 million people get sick from a foodborne illness, according to the Centers for Disease Control. A portion of those who are sick are hospitalized and some even may die from an illness.

“Foodborne illnesses can be very serious,” Kendra Crabtree CDM, CFPP, Service Line Director, Food and Nutrition Services for Penn Highlands Healthcare, said.

“Sometimes called food poisoning, foodborne illnesses are caused by food contaminated by bacteria, viruses and parasites,” JoAnn Schatz, DTR, Director of Food & Nutrition at Penn Highlands Elk, said. “The specific symptoms can be felt quickly after eating or sometimes several days after eating.”

The usual symptoms include nausea, vomiting, cramps and diarrhea. “Anyone can get food poisoning,” Cindy Grill, DTR, Director of Food and Environmental Services at Penn Highlands Brookville, said, “but it is more likely to affect pregnant women, young children, older adults and people with weakened immune systems, and it can lead to complications from dehydration.”

“And we take preventing foodborne illnesses very seriously,” Crabtree said. She noted that the staff for all Penn Highlands’ kitchens and cafeterias are well-trained in food safety, and they would like to share a few of their tips here for your summer picnics - and for year-round safety.

Be clean!
“Always wash your hands properly to remove dirt and germs before you begin cooking or serving,” Amy Moosmann CDM, CFPP, Food Service Director at Penn Highlands DuBois, said. Wet your hands with running water, apply soap and scrub for at least 20 seconds – or two times through the “Happy Birthday” song. Rinse thoroughly, dry with a clean towel or paper towel, and turn off water with a paper towel.

If you are picking a picnic location – always look for one with access to water for you and your guests to wash your hands. You can also use anti-bacterial wipes, too, before cooking and eating.

Always start with clean utensils, cutting boards and countertops washed with hot, soapy water. “If you have cutting boards with chips or deep cuts, throw them out – bacteria can grow and multiply in them,” Julie Daquilante, Director of Food and Environmental Services at Penn Highlands Clearfield, said.

If you are going to cook at a picnic site, be sure to clean your coolers before and after a picnic. Using one tablespoon of bleach in a gallon of water is the best cleaner to kill the germs, and only put them away when thoroughly dry.

Fresh fruits and vegetables should be rinsed under cool, running water or soaked for at least one minute, rinsing until water is clear. Use a brush to scrub the skin. There are a lot of hands that may have touched those items at the store before you brought them home. Also, do as much pre-cutting and prep work at home so you are not limited by the amount of running water at a picnic site.

Transporting food
Make sure your cooler will keep foods at 40°F or colder, Moosman advises. If you have concerns, look at your menu and opt for foods that are less perishable, such as lunch meats, cheese or peanut butter. Keep drinks in a separate cooler since it will be opened more often.

Don't partially pre-cook meat or poultry before transporting. If time is a concern, cook it completely at home, and chill it thoroughly before putting it in the cooler. If you take hot food, wrap the dish in aluminum foil and towels to keep it above 140°F.

If you decided upon take-out foods, eat them within two hours of purchase or thoroughly chill them before adding to the cooler and transporting.

Put your coolers in the back seat of the car rather than the hot trunk, Grill added. Keep them in the shade, and keep adding ice.

Don’t cross-contaminate!
“Raw animal foods, including raw meat, poultry, fish and eggs in shells can contain harmful germs,” Schatz said. “These germs are killed when foods are cooked to the correct temperature.”

“Before cooking them, care must be taken when storing and handling,” Daquilante said. Store your raw meat and such on the bottom shelf of the refrigerator. If it drips, there is no food below it to be ruined.

If you are traveling with raw meats, do not use the same cooler for ice, beverages, salads or fruits and vegetables. Use separate coolers, and never consume ice that was used to store food or beverages. (Think of the dirty hands going into the cooler to dig for a favorite soft drink.)

When meat is cooked, transfer it to a clean plate. Never place cooked meat on a plate or cutting board that held raw meat. Never reuse marinades that have come in contact with raw meat, and don't put the cooked food back into an unwashed container or the dish that contained the marinade.

Safe grilling
“When you are cooking, take only as much food out of the cooler as being cooked,” according to Crabtree.

Fully cook meats to ensure bacteria is killed. Hamburgers and ribs should be cooked to 165° F or until the center is no longer pink and juices are clear. Cook ground poultry to 165° F and poultry parts to 180° F. Reheat pre-cooked meats until steaming hot.

Keep cold foods cold and hot foods hot. Bacteria begin to multiply between 40 ° F and 140 ° F. Keep cold food at 40 ° F and under. Keep hot food at 140 ° F and up.

Put your salads/side dishes in bowls and stack them into bowls with ice. Watch that the ice doesn’t melt and allow for your foods to get warm. Keeping foods covered and in the shade also helps.

Safe serving
“Always use utensils such as spatulas and tongs when serving food,” Moosman said. Each food item should get its own utensil, and the handle should never touch the food. When handing out utensils, only hold them by the handle and never touch the tines of a fork, the bowl of a spoon or the blade of the fork. Hold plates and bowls by the bottom and rim.

Remember, gathering together for summer picnics is all about having fun. If you have any concerns about a food’s odor or taste, don’t serve it. Your guests will appreciate that their safety is a priority for you.