Summer is prime time for weddings, picnics, graduation parties, and family cookouts. And feeding the large groups involved can make food safety especially challenging. Last June, at least 81 students from E.C. Drury High School in Milton, Ontario, reported signs of food poisoning after a graduation celebration. Many had bloody diarrhea. In July, stool samples confirmed E. coli as the cause of illness, though the exact food source of the bacterium was not confirmed. Known sources of E. coli include undercooked beef, sausage, and contaminated produce.
Typical signs of foodborne illness include nausea, vomiting, cramps, and diarrhea. In serious cases, high fever, bloody stool, and prolonged vomiting may occur. Young children, pregnant women, older people, and those with compromised immune systems are hit hardest.
Bacteria, whether in food or in the air, grow faster in warmer weather. Don't just worry about the potato salad or egg dishes, says Marlene Clark, a registered dietician at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. "You have to be careful with any food, including melons and lettuce," she says. Since 1996, the FDA has responded to 14 outbreaks of foodborne illness for which fresh lettuce or fresh tomatoes were the confirmed or suspected source. The causes included E. coli, salmonella, cyclospora, and hepatitis A virus.
What you can do:
It seems so basic, but not everyone does it. Wash hands well and often with soap and water, especially after using the bathroom and before cooking or eating. Also wash surfaces when cooking, keep raw food separate from cooked food, marinate food in the refrigerator, cook food thoroughly, and refrigerate or freeze food promptly. The FDA suggests never leaving food out for more than one hour when the temperature is above 90 F. Any other time, don't leave food out for more than two hours. "Keep hot food hot and cold food cold," Clark adds. "Wash off fruits and vegetables with cool running water." Also, scrub fruits with rough surfaces like cantaloupe with a soft brush.
When you are packing food for a picnic, place cold food in a cooler with plenty of ice or commercial freezing gels. Cold food should be held at or below 40 F and the cooler should be stored in shade. Hot food should be wrapped well, placed in an insulated container, and kept at or above 140 F.
Those hit by a foodborne illness must stay hydrated so they could try chewing on ice chips or sipping clear fluid after vomiting has stopped. In the next day or so, eat only light foods such as bananas, rice, applesauce, toast, crackers, and soup. Seek emergency treatment if severe pain accompanies the illness, if vomiting doesn't stop in a couple of hours, or if bloody diarrhea is experienced.