The Kitchen Think: Summer Food Rules


It’s been hotter than a honeymoon hotel around here, so it’s about time we cover some basic summertime food safety rules. Strap yourself in… this is going to be as graphic as that “Hell’s Highway” film you saw in driver’s ed.

Well, maybe not that bad…

But, there’s a good chance that something you eat this summer is going to make you sick. According to The Centers for Disease Control, you have a 1 in 6 chance of getting food poisoning. The biggest culprits? Salmonella, E.coli and Campylobacter (haven’t heard much about that one, I bet!). Those three bacteria cause most of the 50 million food poisoning cases that occur every year in the U.S.

When most of us get food poisoning, we don’t go to a doctor; we just lay low until it’s run its course. But for those with weakened immune systems, it can invade the bloodstream, cause massive infections and occasionally even kill them. I’m getting this info from the CDC, so Mama’s not making any of it up, or even exaggerating just a little like she loves to do.

E.Coli food poisoning outbreaks in Europe have been big news lately, but Salmonella is actually more common… and the CDC says it’s getting worse. Salmonella bacteria live in the intestines of poultry. That’s why raw or undercooked poultry and eggs, or any food that has been contaminated with juices dripping from raw chicken, can get you sick.

graph by the CDC

Here comes the gross part: You can also get Salmonella from another person by eating or drinking something that has been contaminated with feces from unwashed hands… and even from animal feces that end up in and on what we eat. That means you can also get Salmonella from things like fruits and vegetables, ground meat and even processed foods… not just poultry and eggs.

So here’s Lesson # 1:
Wash up!
• Wash your hands with soap and water before you prepare any food. Sing Happy Birthday (to yourself) so you know you’ve spent enough time washing (no speed-singing!).
• If you’re outdoors, bring along some moist towelettes to clean your hands and any surfaces with which you’re likely to come into contact (picnic table tops, etc.).
• Wash your cutting boards, dishes, utensils, knives and counter tops with hot, soapy water and sanitizing spray before preparing the next dish.
• Wash all your fresh fruits and vegetables in running tap water to remove dirt. Throw out the outermost leaves of a head of lettuce or cabbage.

Salmonella is more common in the summer because the heat creates the ideal environment for bacteria to grow. How many times have you been at a barbecue and seen the potato salad or sour cream onion dip roasting in the sun for hours? That’s how you get sick!

Which brings us to Lesson #2:
• Keep your cold food, like that potato salad, in the refrigerator or a well-insulated cooler with plenty of ice or icepacks to keep the temperature below 40°F. Pull it out right before serving.
• If you’re using a cooler, freeze the juice boxes and water bottles the night before and then pack them in the cooler to help keep the temperature down.
• Put the cooler in your backseat, not in the hot trunk.
• If your serving bowl is too big to keep in the refrigerator or cooler with the finished dish, keep the ingredients in re-sealable bags and assemble them right before serving.
• Don’t leave any food outside for more than an hour if the temperature is 90°F or above.
• Refrigerate your leftovers… or, as painful as it might be, throw them out!

Make sure you don’t cross-contaminate the food. Keep your raw meat, poultry and seafood well wrapped and away from the ready-to-eat foods. If at all possible, store your raw meat, poultry and seafood in the lowest compartment or shelf in the refrigerator so it can’t drip on other food. Defrost your frozen food before taking it to the grill or party. Have extra plates ready so you don’t use the same plate for raw and cooked foods.

Then there’s Lesson #3:
Cook Smart!
• Don’t let your raw meat “hang out” unrefrigerated for long stretches of time… only the amount of raw meat that will fit on the grill should be removed from your refrigerator or cooler.
• Make sure you cook all meat, poultry and eggs to the proper temperature.
• Use a quick-read thermometer to check the internal temperature of meat and other heated items.

Food Type Cook to this Temperature
Hamburgers 160°F 
Chicken Breasts and Drumsticks 165°F
Bratwurst 160°F
Pork Chops 145°F
Fish Until opaque and flakes easily

Finally… use some common sense. If you’re sick, especially if you have diarrhea, don’t cook for others (trust me, your guests will appreciate it…and a sit-down dinner probably isn’t in the cards for you anyway). And please, don’t do what Mama once saw at a barbecue: never change a baby’s diaper while preparing food on the same table at the same time, and then go back to making hamburger patties.

If that doesn’t make you want to head for “Hell’s Highway,” nothing will!

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I’m Christina Chavez

I was a TV journalist for many years, but with a house full of kids I decided to come off the road, go to culinary school and follow my passion for cooking. Mama’s High Strung is all about food… everything from creative recipe ideas to some really cool kitchen gadgets and cooking tips. I live in Chicago, but I love to travel and write about my food discoveries! You can reach me by email: