Summer is one of the most popular times of year to get together with family and friends. Warm temperatures, long days, fresh produce and hosting a cookout are things the season is made for. But if you’re not careful, you may have some uninvited guests at your next gathering.
“Everything has bacteria,” said Vicki Billings, food service manager for Meals for Me, a program of Eastern Agency on Aging. “One of the best ways to prevent food poisoning is to use a food thermometer. Burgers should be cooked at 140 degrees for 12 minutes.”
While most people understand the danger of placing cooked meat on a platter that previously held raw meat, some people think nothing of cross- contamination through unwashed hands or reused utensils, she added.
“It is never a good idea to leave food, cooked or not, unrefrigerated for more than a half-hour, whether meat or salads,” Billings said. “As hot food cools, or cold food warms, any bacteria that was not completely killed during cooking will have a prime breeding ground. Warm and moist places are bacterium paradise. Keep meat on the top rack of the grill and keep salads on ice.”
Another instance where problems can occur is after grocery shopping.
“When people grocery shop and buy milk, meat, cheese or frozen foods, they will often shop the perimeters of the store first because that’s how it’s set up,” said Billings. “But that leaves the food unprotected for however long the person is in the store. And if they stop along the way home to get gas, or run an errand, the food will clearly be in the danger zone.”
Billings recommends putting a cooler and ice in the car before shopping. This will give you a safe place to put perishables. “This is especially important if you live more than 15 minutes from the store,” she added.
And then there are the baked bean suppers and spaghetti feeds.
“It’s a great way to support a good cause, but may not be the safest,” said Billings. “When you are at one of these functions, just be careful. If it is supposed to be hot and isn’t – don’t eat it. If it is supposed to be cold and isn’t – don’t eat it. And if you don’t know where it came from, it’s best to bypass it.”
If all of this sounds a little paranoid, it’s not. While a younger person with a slight case of food poisoning may feel sick or have cramps for a couple of hours, seniors could die, added Billings. “They can get dehydrated very quickly,” she said.
Rowell also recommends washing produce very carefully.
“A lot of seniors are not used to taking these precautions,” she said. “They didn’t grow up that way. But I tell them that food doesn’t come from the same place anymore. It is not grown on the farm down the street. It goes through a lot more processing. Cantaloupe may come from Chile, grapes from Argentina. Who knows what happened to it on its way to your table.”
And the next time you leave your milk out, think about this. Every time the milk temperature rises above 40 degrees -which is what your refrigerator should be set at – one day can be subtracted off the “sell-by” date.
One last thing to remember.
“Something doesn’t have to smell bad to be bad,” said Billings. “And clean is not the same thing as sanitized.” Most of all, remember to keep hot food hot, cold food cold, wash your hands often and don’t touch your food too much, she added.
“Protect yourself,” said Billings with a laugh. “It’s a food war out there.”
Carol Higgins is communications director at Eastern Agency on Aging. For information on EAA, call 941-2865 or log on www.eaaa.org.