It’s not quite summer yet, but you might not know it to step outside. We’ve already experienced several warm, summery days, despite the fact that summer is still a few weeks away. And, if it’s warm enough outside, summer activities will start, regardless of what the calendar says, which means many of us will be cooking and eating outdoors for the foreseeable future. When temperatures rise, though, so does our risk for foodborne illnesses, which is why it’s important to clear the air about the foods you’re eating and preparing when you’re outside this season.
Blount Memorial registered dietitian Heather Pierce says there are lots of myths surrounding food safety that simply aren’t true. “One common myth is that salads or foods with mayonnaise pose the biggest threat for foodborne illnesses,” Pierce said. “This isn’t necessarily true. Most commercial mayonnaise brands use pasteurized eggs and lots of vinegar, which make it acidic. Bacteria typically don’t like to live in this environment. However, bacteria do like to grow when things are stored at room temperature, so if you’re having potato salad or coleslaw, remember to keep it stored in the refrigerator until you’re ready to serve it,” she said.
“Another myth involving bacteria is the idea that once meat is cooked, the bacteria are gone and you’re safe,” Pierce continued. “Actually, once meat is cooked, the possibility for bacteria growth actually begins to increase. Be sure to stay aware of how long your cooked meats sit out at room temperature. No cooked foods should ever sit out longer than two hours, and if the outside temperatures are above 90 degrees, that reduces to one hour. Also, while cooking meats is an effective way to kill bacteria, always be sure to heat them properly. Use a meat thermometer to make sure your meats reach an internal temperature of at least 160 degrees for beef and 165 degrees for poultry,” she explained.
Also, when it comes to meats, Pierce says to be careful how you thaw them. “Some people still seem to think it’s okay to thaw meats on their countertops, which is just not a good idea,” she said. “Instead, you can quickly thaw them by placing sealed and frozen packages of meat in a bath of cold water. Just remember to change the water out every 30 minutes, and cook immediately. Foods thawed this way should never be put back in the freezer or refrigerator,” she said. “Similarly, some of us think that because our marinades are acidic that it’s fine to leave meats out so long as they’re soaking in marinade. Again, this is not a great idea because bacteria can grow and multiply due to the temperature of the room, so if you’re going to marinate, remember to do so in the refrigerator,” Pierce explained.
Pierce says one last myth involves washing produce. “We tend to think that it’s important to wash some produce, but not others,” Pierce said. “For instance, we may wash the lettuce and cucumbers we’re putting in our salad, but forget to wash the watermelon or cantaloupe we’re putting beside it on the picnic table. Sometimes, washing these can be difficult due to their size, but it’s important to remember that there can be any number of organisms on the outside of them, so wash them just as you would any other fruit or vegetable. With cantaloupes, especially, it’s important to wash them thoroughly and peel them before eating because the thick, porous skin can soak up bacteria like a sponge,” she said.
“In short, enjoying foods in warm outdoor temperatures is all about time and temperature,” Pierce continued. “If you can remember to keep your cold foods cool and your hot foods hot, and avoid leaving them out too long, you’ll be ahead of the game when it comes to avoiding foodborne illnesses and bacteria,” she added.