Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition

Guidelines for summer food safety

Published July 14, 2015

URBANA, Ill. - Summer is a time for fun, food, and relaxation, but it is also a time when foodborne illnesses increase, according to a University of Illinois Extension, nutrition and wellness educator.

“Foodborne-related illnesses do increase during the summer months, primarily for two reasons. The reasons, however, may not be what one would typically think,” said Diane Reinhold.

In order to understand why foodborne illnesses occur, Reinhold explained that we first need to understand some of the science behind the causes of foodborne illness. The two culprits responsible for most foodborne related illnesses are bacteria and viruses.

“Bacteria are naturally present throughout our environment and can be found almost everywhere. Under the right conditions, there is a never-ending threat of bacteria quickly multiplying to unsafe numbers,” explained Reinhold, also a registered dietitian. “Viruses, on the other hand, such as Norovirus, can spread directly from person to person or by an infected person who unknowingly contaminates food or drink prepared for others

“Norovirus can survive for weeks on surfaces that it has contaminated,” she added.

If bacteria and viruses cause foodborne illnesses, why does this occur more often during the summer months?

“It is important to understand that there are ideal growing conditions for microorganisms, such as bacteria. Most bacteria that are responsible for foodborne-related illnesses, such as Clostridium perfringens (C. perfringens) and Salmonella, prefer warm temperatures and need moisture to flourish,” Reinhold explained. “Thus the heat and humidity common to Illinois summers cultivate endless opportunities for bacteria to quickly multiply to unsafe levels.”

In addition to summer’s ideal conditions for bacteria to grow, there is still yet another factor that contributes to the increase in foodborne related illnesses. Reinhold said that more people are simply busy enjoying the out-of-doors. “With more people enjoying outdoor activities, more people are also eating outdoors. Whether attending family reunions or church potlucks, grilling, camping, or enjoying the day at the beach, it is important to keep food safety in the forefront,” she cautioned.

What can you do to help prevent foodborne-related illnesses this summer?

Plan ahead. “When transporting food it is essential to find out ahead of time if there will be enough space to safely store food to prevent unsafe food temperatures, not only while traveling, but also once the destination is reached,” she said.

“If you will be traveling, use a cooler and ice packs to help keep food cold. When storing your cooler, place it in the coldest part of the car and when you arrive at your destination, place the cooler in a cool or shaded area,” she added.

Placing a thermometer inside the cooler will help in monitoring the temperature and will indicate when temperatures have risen to unsafe levels.

Keep foods out of the “danger zone.” Bacteria can multiple quickly between the temperatures of 41 and 135 degrees. Keep hot foods at or above 135 degrees by carrying them in insulated carriers or using containers specially designed to keep food hot, Reinhold said. “Make arrangements ahead of time to keep food hot until served. When reheating foods an internal temperature of 165 degrees must be reached to be considered safe,” she added.

Do not cross contaminate. Cross contamination is the transfer of harmful microorganisms from one surface to another. “To avoid cross contamination always clean cutting boards, utensils, and counter tops with warm soapy water after each use. To prevent recontamination of foods, never replace cooked food on the same plate or cutting board that previously held raw food. This includes raw fruits or vegetables,” Reinhold explained.

Use a food thermometer. When checking for doneness, use a food thermometer. “The use of a thermometer is the only safe and reliable way to ensure food is cooked to a temperature high enough to kill harmful microorganisms,” Reinhold said.

When checking food temperature, remove food from the heat source and insert the thermometer through the thickest part of the dish or meat, allowing it to reach the middle of the food. “Repeat this process in several different places to ensure food is cooked evenly throughout to a safe minimum internal temperature,” she said. “Avoid touching bone, fat or gristle with the thermometer probe. Remember to clean your food thermometer with hot soapy water before and after each use, to prevent cross contamination.”

Refrigerate promptly after serving. Because warm summer temperatures cause microorganisms to multiply quickly, food left unrefrigerated for more than two hours may not be safe to eat. However, when the temperature is above 90 degrees, food should not be left out for more than one hour. Therefore, refrigerate food promptly.

“Summer is a wonderful time to enjoy eating outdoors. Protect your family, friends, and yourself from foodborne-related illnesses by practicing safe food handling,” Reinhold said.

For more information about nutrition, wellness, and safe food handling, contact Reinhold at 815-235-4125 or dreinhol@illinois.edu.