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Picnic Without Food Poisoning This Summer

9 simple strategies to keep food safe and everyone healthy

A picnic lunch with sandwiches,potato salad,coleslaw and cookies, Food Safety for Memorial Day

Make sure to store your food properly to prevent spoilage. — Istock

En español l Haul out the coolers and picnic baskets, fire up the grill, and — most importantly — refresh your food safety know-how as the summer cookout season gets underway.

No matter what kind of get-together you're having, remember that food-borne bacteria thrive in warm weather. Make sure you prepare, cook and store food correctly to keep everyone healthy and safe.

It's not as easy as it sounds. More than 100 people attending a recent Food Safety Summit of 1,300 experts in Baltimore reported they got sick with suspected food poisoning about 12 hours after a meal, according to Maryland health officials. No one was hospitalized — and the media had a field day with the irony of the outbreak — but many suffered symptoms including diarrhea and nausea.

The best way to protect yourself and your guests, says former caterer Jeff Nelken, a food safety consultant based in Woodland Hills, Calif., is to follow these simple rules and tips:

1. Wash your hands

"I can't stress this enough," says Nelken. Wash with warm water and soap before and after handling food and, of course, after using the bathroom.

2. Keep raw foods and their juices away from cooked foods

Never put cooked food on an unwashed plate that previously held raw food. Use separate cutting boards for meats and vegetables, and wash the boards thoroughly after each use. "And don't forget the tongs you use to put your raw meat on the grill," Nelken adds. "Never use the same ones to turn or remove the cooked meat."

3. Never thaw food at room temperature, such as on the counter top

There are three safe ways to defrost food: in the refrigerator, in cold water and in the microwave. Food thawed in cold water or in the microwave should be cooked immediately, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

4. Think small bowls, not big ones

Instead of putting out a big bowl of potato salad or some other perishable food that can get too warm, divide it up into smaller serving bowls, Nelken suggests. Serve one bowl and keep the others refrigerated until the first one is empty. Then replace it — "don't refill it!" — with a chilled one, he says.

5. Ice down food transported by car

Your car heats up like an oven, so be sure you have plenty of ice, cold packs and insulated containers if you're traveling with food. Cars can get up to 120 degrees in 10 to 15 minutes on hot days," which, unfortunately, is too warm for cold food and not warm enough to keep hot food safe, Nelken says. According to the USDA, cold foods such as egg salad or tuna salad should be kept at 40 F with ice or frozen gel packs until serving time. Hot foods should be kept at 140 F or above. Store them in an insulated container until serving.

6. Use multiple coolers

If you are packing up your car with food and snacks, pack one cooler with raw meat, poultry and seafood (pack them still frozen so they stay cold longer) and one for prepared food or raw produce, advises the USDA. Reserve one cooler just for beverages and snacks (because it will be opened frequently), allowing the unopened food coolers to stay cold. Make sure coolers are filled to the top with ice or ice packs to help them stay cold longer.

7. Two hours in the sun, max

Food should not sit out in the sun any longer than two hours, and if it's 90 F or hotter, cut that to one hour.

8. Use pasteurized eggs

"If your crowd includes a lot of people over 65 or those with compromised immune systems, use pasteurized eggs to reduce the risk of salmonella," Nelken suggests. Brands such as Davidson's Safest Choice are available at several supermarket chains.

9. Cool cooked foods quickly

Three hundred guests were sickened at a Missouri wedding recently thanks to gravy that cooled down slowly, allowing bacteria to grow, health officials said. "Hot food needs to be kept hot. You can't just let it cool down at room temperature. Bacteria doubles every 15 to 20 minutes," explains Nelken. If you're cooking ahead of time, refrigerate then reheat your food when guests arrive. Once hot food is served, it needs to be kept hot "at 135 degrees Fahrenheit or above," he adds.

Need some recipe ideas for grilling? Cookbook author and AARP contributor Pam Anderson offers healthy grilling suggestions for lean meats, including pork tenderloin, London broil and chicken breasts.

Candy Sagon writes about health for AARP Media. See more of her health reporting on the AARP Blog.

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