Now that summer is finally here, it’s time for fun in the sun — and for many people that means backyard barbecues. Is there anything better than a juicy burger, hot off the grill with a side of Grandma’s famous potato salad?
Except in some cases, that delicious meal could turn out to be a recipe for disaster, especially if you have a suppressed or weakened immune system. According to the FDA, food borne illness peaks in the summer months, largely because we spend more time cooking and eating outside. Warmer temperatures cause bacteria to grow faster on food (especially those that contain bacteria-prone ingredients like eggs and mayonnaise), food cooked on outdoor grills may not be cooked to minimum temperatures and it’s more likely that foods will be cross contaminated when carried in coolers and picnic baskets. The result is that thousands of people are sickened by food borne illnesses every summer, usually because of the harmful bacteria salmonella.
The Dangers of Salmonella
For most people, salmonella is an unpleasant experience, but one that they quickly bounce back from. Salmonella poisoning usually presents as a light fever, diarrhea and abdominal cramps, about 12 to 72 hours after eating contaminated food. Most people recover completely within four to seven days, although some people have lingering effects from the diarrhea for several weeks or months after the worst symptoms subside. In some cases, the severe diarrhea causes dehydration that leads to hospitalization.
For infants, older adults and those with impaired immune systems, though, salmonella poisoning is not a simple “stomach bug” that keeps them close to a bathroom for a few days. Food poisoning in these individuals is a serious and potentially deadly condition. Not only is someone with HIV/AIDS 100 times more likely to contract salmonella poisoning, he or she is more likely to die from the condition: A 2008 study from the University of California Davis found that almost half of all HIV patients that get salmonella poisoning die from the bacteria.
While many HIV patients take advanced drugs to help prevent potentially deadly infections, and most immunocompromised take precautions to avoid getting sick, it’s still important to adhere to proper food handling guidelines and take precautions to avoid sickening your family and guests at your next backyard barbecue.
Cold Foods Cold, Hot Foods Hot
Keeping your cookouts free of food borne illness comes down to following the basic guidelines for food handling and safety. Some of the most important steps to take include:
Keep foods that are meant to be cold at or below 40 degrees, and cook food to the appropriate temperature before serving. Invest in a good quality meat thermometer to test meat on the grill before serving.
Keep raw food that will be cooked separate from raw food that will be eaten; in other words, don’t store the raw chicken in the same cooler as the sliced watermelon to avoiding transferring bacteria.
Assume that all meat is carrying bacteria, and transport and store accordingly. Don’t reuse plates or platters that carried raw meat to serve cooked meat without thoroughly washing them, and do not cut vegetables or other items that won’t be cooked on cutting boards that were used for raw meat.
Never let food sit out for longer than two hours; cold food should be discarded after one hour if the temperature is above 90 degrees.
Use thermal containers or ice buckets to help food maintain the proper temperature as long as possible.
If you’re traveling to a barbecue site, consider packing meat in the cooler while it is still frozen. It will thaw on the way, without allowing excessive bacteria to grow. If you are cooking at home, thaw meat in the refrigerator, not on the counter, which encourages bacteria growth.
Practice good hygiene. Wash your hands frequently, especially between handling raw food and cooked food, and before eating.
Dealing With Salmonella Poisoning
If, despite all of your precautions, you or someone else does get sick from the food at a barbecue, carefully monitor the symptoms. If you have an impaired immune system, it’s best to seek medical attention as soon as you suspect salmonella poisoning. A doctor will run tests to confirm the infection, and then prescribe a course of treatment that will most likely include hospitalization, IV rehydration and possibly antibiotic medication.
For the average person, the main treatment for food poisoning is staying hydrated and getting adequate rest. Replacing fluids and electrolytes with water and sports drinks (avoid excess sugar) can help prevent dehydration and serious complications. When you feel like eating, choose bland, easily digestible foods for a few days until your bowel movements regulate and your stomach settles. The BRAT diet (bananas, rice, applesauce and toast) is a good choice for a few days. Most doctors don’t recommend taking medication to control diarrhea, as it could prolong the infection, but if you’re suffering from painful cramps or body aches, a low-dose over the counter pain reliever might provide some relief.
When you’re planning your backyard barbecue, the last thing you want is for it to turn lethal for your friends and family. If you know the facts about food poisoning and take the necessary precautions, you can all enjoy the burgers and potato salad without any worries at all.