How to keep your food safe during that Memorial Day picnic

A lot of food we buy contains germs but you can take steps to avoid getting sick

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Foodborne illnesses can be particularly sneaky and scary because we can’t see or smell most of the germs that contaminate our food. Our food may look fine, but it could contain dangerous amounts of Salmonella, the No. 1 cause of hospitalizations and deaths from foodborne illness in the United States.

Bacteria including Salmonella, Listeria and E. coli caused nearly 90 food recalls in 2023, roughly the same number as in 2022, according to our latest “Food for Thought” analysis of government data. In late 2023, an outbreak caused by Salmonella-contaminated cantaloupe led to 12 of those recalls. This outbreak sickened more than 400 people across 44 states, leading to 158 hospitalizations and six deaths. Listeria in peaches and leafy greens caused other big outbreaks in 2023.

Illnesses caused by Salmonella and Listeria occur more often in the summer because the bacteria love warm temperatures and unrefrigerated foods at picnics and outdoor gatherings, experts say.

Following these easy food safety steps can help you avoid getting sick from many types of food contamination or food poisoning, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

  • Clean: This means washing your hands, your utensils and your preparation surfaces frequently. This is particularly important if you’re handling uncooked meat, chicken and other poultry, seafood, flour, or eggs.
    And if you touch the water faucet handles with dirty hands, wipe those down too after you wash your hands.
    Wash all fruits and vegetables before slicing, peeling and eating.
    And wash your hands in between preparing different types of food to avoid transferring bacteria from one type of food, if it exists, to another.
  • Separate: For food items that will not be cooked, keep them separate from raw meat, poultry and seafood.
  • Cook: Remember that more than a dozen recalls from the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 2023 stemmed from Listeria, E. coli and other pathogens. These recalls involved tens of thousands of pounds of beef, pork and poultry. And that’s just the ones we know about. It’s important to know that cooking to the proper temperature kills Listeria, Salmonella and E. coli.
    Use a food thermometer to make sure your food is cooked properly to reach a temperature high enough to kill germs. To be safe, use two thermometers in case one is faulty.
    Quite simply, undercooked meat and poultry can make you sick. Beef and pork may contain Salmonella, E. coliYersinia and other bacteria. Raw poultry frequently contains Campylobacter and can also contain SalmonellaClostridium perfringens and other bacteria.
    Rinsing contaminated items, such as lettuce or mushrooms, can remove pesticide residue and some germs, but it won’t kill bacteria such as Salmonella, Listeria or E. coli.
  • Chill: Refrigerate perishable food within two hours if it’s out at room temperature. Refrigerate it within one hour if the food is out in temperatures above 90 degrees, at a picnic for example. In addition, frozen foods should be thawed in the refrigerator, not at room temperature.
  • Stay informed: Finally, keep up with the latest food recalls. Here’s our consumer guide on ways to protect you and your family.

Teresa Murray

Consumer Watchdog, U.S. PIRG Education Fund

Teresa directs the Consumer Watchdog office, which looks out for consumers’ health, safety and financial security. Previously, she worked as a journalist covering consumer issues and personal finance for two decades for Ohio’s largest daily newspaper. She received dozens of state and national journalism awards, including Best Columnist in Ohio, a National Headliner Award for coverage of the 2008-09 financial crisis, and a journalism public service award for exposing improper billing practices by Verizon that affected 15 million customers nationwide. Teresa and her husband live in Greater Cleveland and have two sons. She enjoys biking, house projects and music, and serves on her church missions team and stewardship board.

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