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Avoid foodborne illness at the holiday cookout

Amanda CudaMay 23, 2019

The federal government estimates that there are about 48 million cases of foodborne illness annually nationwide. Each year, these illnesses result in an estimated 128,000 hospitalizations and 3,000 deaths.

A lot of food poisoning happens around holidays, such as Memorial Day, said Rebecca Bonetti, a registered dietitian and outpatient dietitian with Bridgeport Hospital.

“We see it at all times of year, but any time that there are a lot of parties, people are more likely to get sick,” she said.

Bacteria and viruses are the biggest causes of food poisoning, which carries such symptoms as upset stomach, abdominal cramps, nausea and vomiting, diarrhea, fever, and dehydration. Symptoms may range from mild to severe.

One main reason foodborne illness is more common during holidays and other party-inspiring events is that party food — such as the aforementioned potato salad — is often left out for long periods of time. As food sits at room temperature, cold stuff loses its chill and hot foods cool off, increasing the odds of bacterial growth, Bonetti said.

She said, when food hits a temperature between 41 degrees and 145 degrees Fahrenheit, it is in a “danger zone,” when it’s more likely to develop pathogens that can make people sick.

“The guideline is, food should be out for no more than two hours,” Bonetti said. “If it’s really hot, like above 90 degrees, it shouldn’t be out any more than an hour.”

One possible solution, she said, is to prepare and or serve food in small batches. For instance, instead of putting the entire vat of Aunt Charlotte’s potato salad on the picnic table, scoop some into a bowl, serve it, and store the rest in the fridge until it is needed.

Bonetti said improper food preparation is another culprit in illnesses.

“A lot of people like their food rare but you want to make sure it’s at the right temperature,” to make sure that any potential harmful bacteria is destroyed.

According to a fact sheet from the Connecticut Department of Public Health, hamburgers should be cooked to an internal temperature of 158 degrees Fahrenheit; steaks and ribs should be cooked to 145 degrees and poultry should be cooked to 165 degrees. Use a food thermometer to check temperatures.

It’s also crucial to avoid cross-contamination, Bonetti said. For instance, it’s unsafe to slice vegetables on the same cutting board as raw meat, because all the bacteria from the meat will stay on the board and taint the veggies.

Also, don’t put cooked food on a tray that has just held raw food. Again, Bonetti said, “all the bacteria stays on the plate. Get a new plate.”

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