Stay safe this summer when eating at outdoor events

As a suburban Chicagoan, you're not the only one who thrives in the summer and loves its warm, long days.

Bacteria and other microbes that cause food poisoning also flourish, threatening to make it a season to be sick.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that annually about 48 million Americans - or one in six - get a foodborne illness, which is an infection or irritation of the gastrointestinal tract caused by food or beverages that contain harmful bacteria, parasites, viruses, or chemicals.

Unfortunately, safety controls such as refrigerators, dishwashers and thermometers aren't usually used outside, which means the risk of food poisoning spikes.

So, how do we stay safe while enjoying our favorite foods at festivals, farmers markets, baseball games, and outdoor barbecues?

Dr. Jerrold Leikin, a medical toxicologist with NorthShore University HealthSystem, answers some of our questions on this topic.

Q: What is a common cause of foodborne illness during the summer?

A: A common cause of food poisoning is not keeping cold food cold. Bacteria on food multiply rapidly if it's not kept chilled, causing a greater chance of someone getting ill.

For example, the majority of raw chicken - 97 percent - is contaminated with harmful bacteria, and that bacteria can double in as little as 20 minutes when food is kept in the "danger zone" of 40 to 140 degrees.

Another common cause is cross-contamination during preparation, grilling or serving food.

When packing a cooler, wrap raw meats so meat juices don't come in contact with other food. Make sure you wash plates, utensils and cutting boards that held raw meat or poultry before using again for cooked food. Keep all food and surfaces clean.

Q: Is it necessary to use different spatulas when grilling meat?

A: It's most important to make sure each type of meat has its own spatula/utensil. Don't use the same spatula to flip chicken and hamburgers. It's good practice to wash the spatula during grilling once the meat is no longer raw, and to make sure you separate meats on different plates.

Q: Besides chicken, what other foods are more likely to cause foodborne illness in summer?

A: Ice cream, milk, cheese, raw cookie dough, eggs, and meat. These foods should remain chilled until it's time to use them. If they are in a cooler, make sure the cooler is not sitting in the sun.

Who doesn't love festival food? But it is important to make sure outdoor food is prepared properly. Daily Herald File photo

Q: How do you tell if something is unsafe to eat?

A: Check the temperature. Most meats (including poultry, ground beef and pork) should be cooked to 160-165 degrees. Depending on how well done you like your steak, temperatures can vary. If it's pink, chances are it might not be completely done.

Sour milk and eggs will have an odor.

If you're at a picnic or farmers market, look to see if food that is supposed to be chilled is being kept cold. When ice starts to melt in the cooler, replace it.

Q: What should someone do if they believe they have food poisoning?

A: Most cases will cause diarrhea and abdominal cramping and sometimes a fever. Less severe infections will merely require rest and fluids.

If symptoms persist for three or more days, or include vomiting or bloody stools, contact a doctor.

• Dr. Jerrold Leikin is a medical toxicologist with NorthShore University HealthSystem.

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