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Practice safe cooking habits to avoid food poisoning

Grilling meat at high temperatures can burn or char the outside, and leave the inside undercooked, according to WebMD. Chelsey Perkins / Forum News Service

BRAINERD, Minn.—Hosting a backyard barbecue during Memorial Day weekend that makes friends and family sick will make sure it's one holiday gathering that's remembered for years to come, but in a bad way.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates 1 in 6 Americans get sick from contaminated foods or beverages each year, and 3,000 die.

"Food prep is one of the main ways bacteria can grow if we're using, say, cutting boards that have been used for raw meat and then turn around and use them for produce," said Teresa Farrell, a registered and licensed dietitian at Essentia Health in Brainerd.

Memorial Day marks the unofficial start of the summer vacation season when Americans hit the road and eat on the road, exposing them to risks of food poisoning. The CDC estimates each year 48 million people get sick from a foodborne illness.

"If food is not cooked thoroughly, to a temperature—which is usually about 160 degrees for meats—that can be a breeding ground for bacteria as well," Farrell said.

Grilling meat at high temperatures can burn or char the outside, and leave the inside undercooked, according to WebMD, an online resource for health and wellness information.

Bacteria on the surface of ground beef can get mixed inside when patties are made, so as a rule, cook a 4-ounce patty that is about 1/2 inch thick and 4 inches wide over medium coals for 11 to 13 minutes, according to WebMD. (Using a gas grill? Check the manual for cooking times.)

"If food is cooked thoroughly, that kills the bacteria," Farrell said. "And if food is kept cold, that also keeps the bacteria at bay, but when it's between 40 and 140 degrees roughly, that's kind of prime temperatures for bacteria to multiply."

Refrigerated beef ribs or steaks should be cooked within three to five days of purchase or before the "use by" date, if there is one on the label; poultry and ground meat spoil faster, so cook them within one to two days, according to WebMD.

"The United States Department of Agriculture recommends that meats should be at least 145 degrees cooked, which usually equates to 'medium,' so anything more rare, you're running the risk of a lower temp, and you're running the risk of some type of food poisoning," Farrell said.

The temperature inside chicken needs to reach at least 165 degrees to kill bacteria, which means grilling thighs, legs or a 6-ounce breast with bones for 10 to 15 minutes on each side, but a boneless breast can be flipped after six to eight minutes and wings after eight to 12 minutes.

"I think when we are talking about cooking meats that it's very important to use a meat thermometer. That way you can actually check the temperature," Farrell said. "Too many people eyeball it, and you can't always tell from the color of the food if it's done or not."

Common symptoms of foodborne diseases are nausea, vomiting, stomach cramps and diarrhea, but symptoms may differ among the different types of foodborne diseases. The symptoms can sometimes be severe and some foodborne illnesses can be fatal.

"What I think is common at potlucks and outdoor barbecues is leaving food sitting out too long," Farrell said of another cause of food poisoning.

"There's usually basically the two-hour rule that hot foods or cold foods should not be left out longer than two hours, but if it gets up around 90 degrees or higher, that number drops down to one hour. Ideally, keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold, and refrigerate shortly after the meal."

Some are more likely to be susceptible to food poisoning, like pregnant women, children, older adults and those with immune systems weakened from diabetes, liver disease, kidney disease, organ transplants, HIV/AIDS, or from receiving chemotherapy or radiation treatment.

"If someone is 'double-dipping' their vegetables ... if that food item then is infected and many people eat that item, the chances of people getting sick from that go up dramatically," Farrell said.

"Even fresh produce should be rinsed under water, and if it's a large-skinned fruit or vegetable even rubbed good to get any potential bacteria off," Farrell said.

"Say it's a melon that you're only going to be eating the inside, and if there's bacteria on the outside and you slice through that melon, that bacteria can follow the knife into the fleshy part of the fruit."

***SIDEBAR***

4 steps to food safety

CLEAN: Wash hands and surfaces often.

• Germs that cause food poisoning can survive in many places and spread around the kitchen.

• Wash hands for 20 seconds with soap and water before, during and after preparing food and before eating.

• Wash utensils, cutting boards and countertops with hot, soapy water.

• Rinse fresh fruits and vegetables under running water.

SEPARATE: Don't cross-contaminate.

• Keep raw meat, poultry, seafood and eggs separate from all other foods in the fridge.

• Use separate cutting boards and plates for raw meat, poultry and seafood.

• When grocery shopping, keep raw meat, poultry, seafood and their juices away from other foods.

COOK: To the right temperature.

• 145 degrees for whole cuts of beef, pork, veal and lamb (then allow the meat to rest for three minutes before carving or eating).

• 160 degrees for ground meats, such as beef and pork.

• 165 degrees for all poultry, including ground chicken and turkey.

• 165 degrees for leftovers and casseroles.

• 145 degrees for fresh ham (raw).

• 145 degrees for fin fish or cook until flesh is opaque.

CHILL: Refrigerate promptly.

• Keep the refrigerator below 40 degrees and know when to throw food out.

• Refrigerate perishable food within two hours. (If outdoor temperature is above 90 degrees, refrigerate within an hour.)

• Thaw frozen food safely in the refrigerator, in cold water or in the microwave. Never thaw foods on the counter, because bacteria multiply quickly in the parts of the food that reach room temperature.

Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

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