By Sally Robinson

Spring has arrived and after an extra cold winter, everybody is ready to get outside for some picnics, backyard barbecues, dips and cold, dressed salads. In other words, it is the season of rapidly spoiling food and food-borne illnesses.

Overall, the incidence of food-borne illnesses has dropped over the past decade. Much of this is due to food safety programs by the US Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration at the food production level.
Still, according to an article by staff writer Judith Rusk of the journal Infectious Diseases in Children, food-borne diseases cause 76 million illnesses, 325 thousand hospitalizations, and 5,000 deaths each year and are most dangerous in the young, the elderly and those with compromised immune systems.

Here are hints provided by the Food Safety and Inspection Service of the Department of Agriculture (www.fsis.usda.gov) to make summer outdoor meals safe for family and guests.

• Wash hands and preparation surfaces often with hot soapy water. Use hot soapy water — not just a paper towel — to clean up spills in the refrigerator, including spills from lunchmeat products and hot dogs. Always wash hands, cutting boards, dishes and utensils with hot, soapy water after they come in contact with raw food.

• Keep raw meat, poultry and seafood separate from vegetables, fruits, breads and other foods already prepared for eating.

• Use a meat thermometer. Cook hamburgers to 160 degrees, roasts and steaks to 145 degrees for medium-rare.

• Ground poultry should be cooked to 165 degrees and poultry parts to 170 degrees.

• Cook fish until it is opaque and flakes easily.

• When barbecuing with charcoal, preheat coals on the grill for 20 to 30 minutes or until the cubes are coated with a gray ash.

• Do not put cooked food items back on a plate that previously held raw food.

• When marinating for long periods of time before cooking, keep food in the refrigerator.

• Don’t use leftover marinating sauce on the already cooked and ready to serve foods unless you boil it.

• If you transport foods any distance after preparation, pack plenty of extra ice or freezer packs to insure a constant cold temperature in the cooler.

• Finally, refrigerate leftovers promptly after the meal, and, when shopping, refrigerate perishables — including ready-to-eat foods within two hours.

The chance of becoming seriously ill from food-borne illness is relatively small. But careless handling of food during the hot season can lead a ruined weekend get-together, or more seriously, absence from school or even hospitalization.

Following the USDA tips above will go a long way to preserve your reputation as a careful cook and ensure that your only brush with food-borne disease will be on the late night news.

Sally Robinson is a clinical professor of pediatrics at UTMB Children’s Hospital. This column isn’t intended to replace the advice of your child’s physician.