Don't spoil your summer fun with food illness

Summer usually signifies lots of picnics, parties and other outdoor events, with most featuring all kinds of delicious food and drinks. To ensure that partygoers will enjoy the feast safely, there are a few important steps people should take when shopping for, preparing, storing and serving their summer dishes. Rick Kralj, food safety and quality extension educator with Penn State Extension's Brookville office, offered some key pieces of advice for food safety in the summertime: 1. Avoid "time-temperature abuse." Kralj said allowing refrigerated products to come to room temperature can allow bacteria to grow and make people sick when they ingest the food. This can particularly be an issue when shopping and putting products into a hot car or when the trip home will take some time. "Take a cooler or ice -- have a means to keep those projects refrigerated until you can get them back into your refrigerator," Kralj said. "Pathogens, whether they're bacteria or viruses, love to have the opportunity to grow at room temperature. If we can follow good practices of picking up that product from our grocery stores and putting it in a controlled environment, it helps us control that temperature and bacteria growth." He also recommends not overloading the refrigerator: When things are packed in too tightly, the air doesn't circulate through the unit properly and items toward the front or on the door will be warmer than they should be. Temperature is key to maintaining food safety, and Kralj said it's a good idea to purchase a thermometer to gauge whether the refrigerator is sufficiently cool for safe food storage. "The ideal safe temperature range is to maintain a range between 38 and 41 degrees," Kralj said. "There's a lot of people that may be having their refrigerators above 41 degrees, which provides opportunities for pathogens to grow." Another thing to consider is the time frame between taking the food out of the refrigerator, preparing it and serving it. Kralj said food preparation of perishable items is best done quickly. "When you bring perishable products out to work with them, don't let those perishable products stay out for more than two hours-- milk, raw meats-- those items that are meant to be under refrigeration," he said. Some foods that have already been prepared may be more likely to be the cause of a food-borne illness. "Commercially, we refer to a term called 'ready-to-eat' items-- tuna salad, chicken salad-- those items that won't be heat-treated again after preparation. Those are the items that make people sick the most in the summer," Kralj said. "To avoid the potential for someone to become sick from your potato salad, make sure you have a way to keep it chilled when taking it to your event. Put it on ice or find another means to keep the bottom surface surrounded by ice to maintain the safety of that product."He said that one particular ingredient-- mayonnaise is commonly named as a culprit-- is not necessarily to blame when people get sick. "The features of what makes a product unsafe is if we give it [bacteria] the right conditions to grow," Kralj said. "Any item can be a potential risk." 2. Avoid cross-contamination. "From the point of picking up your groceries, avoid placing raw meats in the same containers with produce. Those raw meats need to be bagged separately, maybe even stored in a separate container so that those potential contaminants don't cross-contaminate items that won't be heat-treated or go through a cooking application, such as produce," Kralj. "We've seen that in recent events" he said, referring to news reports of people getting sick from reusing grocery bags that were cross-contaminated due to the previous user placing incompatible items together. "We just want to make sure that those ingredients, those raw meat products that need to be cooked, need to be handled carefully so they don't transfer their pathogens onto a product that's not going to be heat-treated," Kralj said. 3. Where you store things in the refrigerator makes a difference.