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Protect against food poisoning at your next cookout

Wednesday - 7/3/2013, 9:18am  ET

Picnic.jpg
So what's the best way to stay ahead of spoiled food at a cookout? Follow these simple tips. (Thinkstock)

WASHINGTON - Food is a central component to many Fourth of July celebrations. And cooking and eating outside in the sunny summer weather is a popular way to enjoy the holiday.

But this can mean trouble. Food that sits in the heat too long can be a breeding ground for the bacteria that causes food poisoning.

"The biggest thing you want to remember is to keep cold food cold, and hot food hot," said Lauryn Muller, a clinical dietitian at Medstar Washington Hospital Center.

Muller says the temperature danger zone for food is between 40 degrees and 140 degrees Fahrenheit.

"Bacteria multiplies very quickly at this temperature, which can really increase your risk of food-borne illness," she said.

So what's the best way to stay ahead of spoiled food at a cookout?

Muller suggests taking a food thermometer along on a picnic to make sure cold items remain less than 40 degrees and hot ones stay more than 140 degrees.

If packing a thermometer seems too extreme for you, just remember that most perishable food should be tossed after sitting out for two hours or one hour if it's really hot. This rule not only applies to meat and salads made with mayonnaise, but also goes for cut fruit and veggies, which are considered extremely perishable in the heat.

The best defense is to keep cold foods on ice or, better yet, in a cooler. Hot foods can sit on a warming tray or the grill if they are still producing enough heat.

Muller also said it's important to cook grilled meat thoroughly. This means 160 degrees for all ground meat, 145 degrees for beef and pork and 165 degrees for poultry.

Another tip: Never use the plate that took the raw meat to the grill as a serving platter for when the meat is cooked and off the grill.

Despite all the warnings about food safety, too many people approach food preparation in a relaxed mindset, which means each summer brings another seasonal wave of food poisoning.

"It seems much more common during the warm months here in the Washington, D.C., area," said Dr. Bill Frohna, chief of emergency medicine at Medstar Washington Hospital Center.

Frohna said food poisoning is marked by vomiting and diarrhea, and is often tough to distinguish from a norovirus, or "stomach bug."

That said, the treatment is almost identical. The first priority is to reverse the fluid loss by drinking plenty of clear liquids, either water or some sort of electrolyte solution. This is especially important for small children.

"Little ones don't necessarily have a reservoir, if you will, of fluids that adults may have. They just don't have the back-up system adults have to react to fluid loss," said Frohna.

Most of the common over-the-counter remedies for gastrointestinal distress can do more harm than good, according to Frohna. He says if the dehydration persists or there are unusual symptoms, such as blood in the vomit or diarrhea, it's definitely time to see a doctor.

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