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How can we prevent our kids from getting food-borne illnesses?
Q: In the summer our extended family gets together every weekend for a barbecue. Recently, my kids and I got diarrhea afterward. I wonder whether we might have gotten food poisoning from not being careful enough with the food. I’m the chief barbecue guy, so I feel responsible. Do you have any tips?
A: It’s wonderful to have summertime barbecues with your family. But it’s always important to be aware of food safety. Although diarrhea can have many different causes, your case could have been from food poisoning (e.g., from bacteria such as salmonella, shigella, campylobacter or E. coli). Food-borne illnesses are common, especially in the summer, because the warm weather makes bacteria in food multiply. These illnesses usually cause a brief bout of diarrhea and/or vomiting, but pregnant women, young children, the elderly and people with immune problems are at risk for more serious illness.

Bacteria that cause food poisoning—which you can’t see, smell or taste—can be on any food. But the key is to remember that the greatest risk is from “perishable” foods such as meat, poultry, seafood, dairy products and egg products, including mayonnaise. These are most likely to carry bacteria, spoil when left unrefrigerated and contaminate other foods.

Here are some basic tips for summer food safety:

  1. Shop safely:

    • At the market, buy refrigerated foods last, right before checking out.
    • Only buy meat, poultry or seafood that looks fresh. Don’t buy it if the colour is mottled, it smells bad or the “sell by” date is passed.
    • When you’ve bought perishable food, go home directly from the market. If you are driving, load perishable groceries into the coolest part of your car (i.e., in the summer, inside the car with air conditioning, or in a cooler).

  2. Keep perishable foods refrigerated:

    • Unload perishable foods first and refrigerate or freeze them right away.
    • Cook or freeze fresh poultry, seafood and ground meat within two days; and beef, veal, lamb or pork within three to five days.
    • Thaw meat, poultry and seafood in the refrigerator or microwave on defrost, never on the counter.
    • Marinate meat, poultry and seafood in the refrigerator, not on the counter. Discard the marinade afterwards. Don’t use it on cooked food.
    • Keep meat, poultry and seafood refrigerated until right before cooking.
    • Keep salads with mayonnaise, meat, poultry or seafood refrigerated until right before serving.
    • At barbecues and picnics, keep perishables in a cooler filled with ice until right before cooking or serving. Keep the cooler in the shade.

  3. Keep food preparation clean:

    • Wash your hands with soap and running water before handling food and after using the bathroom, changing nappys, working outdoors and handling pets.
    • Keep raw eggs, meat, poultry, seafood and their juices away from other food. After handling or cutting raw items, wash your hands and the cutting board and utensils before touching other food.

  4. Cook foods thoroughly:

    • Use a meat thermumeter to make sure meat is cooked properly. Cook steak, veal and lamb to 145 degrees; ground beef to 160 degrees; ground poultry to 165 degrees, and poultry parts to 170 degrees.
    • Cook fish until it is opaque and flaky. Cook ground beef until it is brown, not red or pink. Cook poultry until the juices run clear.
    • Place the cooked meat, poultry or seafood on a clean plate. Don’t use the same plate that held the raw item.

  5. Serve food safely:

    • Serve hot food hot and cold food cold. Keep the hot food cooking and the cold food refrigerated until right before serving.
    • Don’t leave perishable food out for more than two hours (or one hour if the temperature is above 90 degrees). Once everyone has eaten, return the leftovers to the cooler or refrigerator. Discard any perishables that have been left out too long.
For more information, visit www.foodsafety.gov.