Although summer technically starts at the end of this month, for me June is the kickoff for summer. Kids get out of school, the sun is shining extra bright, and we tend to find ourselves wanting to spend more time outdoors. This leads to grilling, swimming, hosting picnics, or other outdoor events we enjoy doing with family and friends. It also tends to lead to cross-contamination, a leading cause of food poisoning. Here are a few ways to avoid cross-contamination to keep your family and friends safe during their summer fun.
Wash your hands. How many times has your mother told you to wash your hands? Handwashing is one of the most effective ways to prevent cross-contamination and prevent food borne illnesses. We tend to forget this age-old lesson when we are swimming, playing in a park, or building sandcastles at the beach. There are several microbial pathogens that have a protective outer layer making them resistant to chlorine. Pools are especially bad for norovirus, and other bodies of water such as ponds, lakes, and creeks are breeding grounds for E. coli. Remember to wash your hands before eating and preparing food. If no wash area is available, use hand sanitizers twice, allowing your hands to air dry between and after back-to-back applications.
Cover your food. Flies are not only a nuisance because they fly around us, they can also cause cross-contamination just because of what they land on. “A fly lands on my cheeseburger, so what?” you might ask. Well the way a fly eats is by vomiting onto your food, which dissolves, then they drink it back up. Consider whatever they ate outside can contaminate food. Also, when flies are landing on your food, keep in mind, that their feet carry pathogens and could potentially make us sick. Scientists have studied the concentrations of different bacteria on various parts of the insects’ bodies using houseflies and blowflies from urban, rural, and natural settings. According to the research published in 2017, “Legs and winds displayed the largest microbial diversity and were shown to be an important route for microbial dispersion. Despite a small body mass, the legs and wings fraction yielded the highest diversity of bacterial species.” When thinking about all the things a fly may land on, it makes sense that their feet may harbor bacteria. So cover up your food, regardless if it is in the home or while you’re outside at the grill.
Keep it separate at the grill (and in the home). Always start with a clean grill, removing any charred food debris from the grill that may be harboring bacteria. Use a separate plate for uncooked and cooked foods. If planning to use the same plate, be sure to wash the plate in between uses with hot soapy water. Use clean utensils or use separate utensils as you cook. If you’re using tongs or a spatula to place the raw meat on the grill, you have two options to avoid cross-contamination. The first is to use separate tongs or spatula to pull the meat off the grill. Secondly, you could use one utensil and leave the tongs or spatula in the grill so that it gets heated to a high enough temperature to kill off any bacteria that may still be on the utensil. If doing this, make sure your utensil is heat resistant (i.e. not plastic). Many utensils will indicate if it is heat resistant and to what temperature it is resistant up to. This same rule is important to consider when cooking in the kitchen. If you are browning meat, switch to a clean utensil halfway through. Otherwise you are just putting that bacteria that you were working to cook out of the meat back in.
Keeping these three important steps in mind can help you to avoid food-borne illnesses this summer. With vacations and other events that happen this time of year, no one enjoys being cooped up inside sick, or even worse making a visit to the hospital.
Sydney Johnson is an area family and consumer sciences extension agent,\ with the North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service. She can be reached by calling the Sampson County Center at 910-592- 7161. This article was adapted from Kelsey Mackin, Food Safety News.