Summer food safety is of paramount importance. Every year, 1 in 6 Americans gets sick as a result of food-borne illnesses. That’s almost 50 million people in total, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). During the summer months we face an increased risk of food poisoning due to the heat, with bacteria multiplying rapidly in food that is left out or not cooked properly. Most of us are well acquainted with the symptoms, but many are unaware that contaminants in food can have fatal consequences for those with a weak immune system.

We generally think of meat, chicken or eggs as the most likely cause of food poisoning, but fruits and vegetables—especially leafy greens and sprouts—pose a considerable threat, says the CDC.

  • Raw foods of animal origin are the most likely to be contaminated: raw meat and poultry, raw eggs, unpasteurized milk, and raw shellfish. Harmful microorganisms are naturally present in healthy animals that are raised for food, and further contamination may occur in processing.
  • Fruits and vegetables consumed raw are a particular concern. Farming practices and handling after harvesting can contaminate produce. Before consuming, rinse fruits and vegetables under running water, use a brush on firm fruits and vegetables, and dry to remove even more pathogens.
  • Bacteria and viruses are responsible for most cases of food-borne illness, followed by parasites. These include some familiar names: Salmonella, Norovirus, E. Coli, Listeria, Campylobacter and Toxoplasma gondii.

To avoid contamination, never mix raw and cooked foods, recommends. Safety starts at the store: separate raw meats and poultry to prevent juices from contaminating other foods in your cart. Bag separately and refrigerate promptly. Cross-contamination can also happen in your refrigerator when meat juices spill over other foods or while preparing a meal with the same utensils.

  • Use separate platters, boards, knives and utensils for raw food and only clean ones for your cooked food.
  • When cooking outside, make sure you have enough platters, knifes, cutting boards and other utensils. It may seem inconvenient, especially if you are eating away from home, but the extra effort goes a long way to prevent this common summer ailment.
  • Wash your hands before and after cooking. Wash utensils and kitchen surfaces after each use to prevent bacteria from spreading. And remember, water alone will not do the trick!

Read Related: Help Kids Play it Safe in the Summer Heat

Food needs to be cooked thoroughly to kill harmful microorganisms. When using a grill, meat tends to brown very fast on the outside, but may remain bloody on the inside. Don’t rely on color or previous experience. A food thermometer is the best option to confirm it is fully cooked.

  • Poultry, whether whole or ground needs to reach a safe minimum internal temperature of 165º.
  • Ground meat, as in hamburgers, must be cooked to 160º.
  • Chops, steaks and other cuts of veal, beef, lamb and pork require a safe internal temperature of 145º.

Precooking in the microwave, stove or oven may seem like a good idea to speed up your barbecue, but should only be done immediately before putting the meat on the grill. Otherwise the short heating time will allow bacteria to survive and speed up contamination.

Some studies suggest cooking meats at very high temperatures creates chemicals, called heterocyclic amines, or HAs, that increase the risk of cancer. HAs are found in grilled and barbecued meats, as well as broiled or pan-fried preparations. To reduce this risk, follow the American Cancer Society’s recommendations:

  • Choose lean cuts of meat and trim excess fat; this avoids flare-ups and reduces the smoke that may contain potential carcinogens.
  • Line the grill with foil and poke a few holes to let the fat drip out but prevent most of the smoke from seeping into the meat; less smoke means less exposure to HAs.
  • Discard all charred and blackened portions, where the highest concentration of HAs is found.
  • If you miss the grilled flavor, add vegetables and fruits to your barbecue. Most of the chemicals found in grilled meats do not form when grilling vegetables and fruit. These cook quickly and can satisfy your grill cravings in a healthy, colorful way.

Timing and temperature are key for food safety, but one can easily get distracted at a barbecue or picnic and leave food sitting out for longer than is advisable. In general, refrigeration or freezing prevents virtually all bacteria from growing. Perishable foods spoil quickly in the summer heat and, yes, that includes potato salad!

  • Perishable food should always be refrigerated within two hours, but if the temperature is above 90º don’t leave food laying out more than an hour.
  • Frozen meats should be thawed completely before grilling to allow even cooking; the safest way to thaw your food is slowly in the refrigerator.
  • If you need to transport food, transfer it directly to a cooler with enough ice or ice packs to keep it below 40º. By using a separate cooler for beverages, you will prevent cross-contamination and won’t need to open it so often, keeping the food cold. Be sure to place the cooler in the shade.
  • When in doubt, discard any leftovers!

Anyone who has suffered from food poisoning knows it can leave you feeling like a wreck for a few days before recovering, but contaminants in food can lead to serious long-term consequences and kill an estimated 3,000 people every year in the US.

  • Pregnant women, unborn babies and infants are at a disadvantage when fighting harmful microorganisms in food; so are the elderly and anyone with a chronic illness or compromised immune system.
  • An E.coli infection can lead to kidney damage and is the most common cause of acute kidney failure in children. A Listeria infection can result in meningitis. Other long-term effects of food-borne illnesses include chronic arthritis, nerve and brain damage.

Make the most of this season’s fruits and vegetables. Be creative when grilling for friends and family. You don’t need to give up your favorite classics, but can add a new healthy twist to your barbecue by incorporating vegetables to meat or fish kebabs. Or you can lighten your burgers with chunky slices of grilled tomato or experiment with fruit on the grill. Or try some of Mamiverse’s favorite summer recipes:

Check out Mamiverse Food for more great ideas and have a safe and healthy summer barbecue!