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How to avoid food poisoning this summer

Summer is high season for foodborne illnesses. Use these expert tips to avoid them.
To prevent foodborne illness, remember these four words: clean, separate, cook and chill.
To prevent foodborne illness, remember these four words: clean, separate, cook and chill.Getty Images

While summer brings us the welcome chance to socialize outside and dine together after a long year apart, the season brings risks when it comes to enjoying those al fresco meals. Just because we’re focused on a pandemic doesn’t mean other dangers just disappear.

Right now in particular, “It's a concern because in summer foodborne illnesses generally go up,” said Robert Gravani, professor emeritus of food science at Cornell University. “Bacteria grow better at warmer temperatures, but also… we're preparing food outdoors and sometimes it's more difficult to control all the variables.”

What is food poisoning and how do you get it?

In a nutshell, food poisoning is illness caused by eating contaminated food, according to the Mayo Clinic. “Infectious organisms — including bacteria, viruses and parasites — or their toxins are the most common causes of food poisoning.”

The contamination can happen anytime during production, they say, including during growing, harvesting, processing, storing, shipping or preparing. A common cause is cross-contamination, when harmful organisms transfer from one surface to another. That makes raw, ready-to-eat foods especially troublesome because those organisms aren’t destroyed during cooking.

Why do these organisms cause illness?

What we often see when we’re enduring a bout of food poisoning is the body’s way of trying to eliminate a bacteria, explained Ben Chapman, Ph.D., a professor and food safety extension specialist at North Carolina State University. “There's bacteria that is just associated with animals that comes from their gastrointestinal tract — that doesn't always make them sick ... but it can just be resident there. And when it gets into our body through the foods that we eat, it can infect our gut and the cells in our intestines or in our stomach.” Foodborne infection is about that bacteria “growing inside of us, competing with other bacteria that’s already in our gut for food and resources.” Our bodies’ response, he said, is “to create a whole bunch of diarrhea or vomit” to get rid of it.

Viruses — such as norovirus, which can be transmitted by an asymptomatic food handler who doesn’t wash their hands properly — on the other hand “can't grow without taking over our cells,” he said. “So they essentially inject themselves inside of our cells … and make a virus factory. They make thousands, and even millions of copies of the virus … so many viruses that the cell blows apart. And then those viruses go and seek other cells that are close by.”

Parasites are typically found in the environment, in contaminated water like rivers or wells, he said. The pathogens can also be spread through the water used to irrigate crops, or within a processing plant.

And a clarification: we often use foodborne illness and food poisoning interchangeably but to be precise, Chapman said, all food poisoning is a foodborne illness, but not all foodborne illnesses are food poisoning.

How do you know if you have food poisoning? Look for these signs and symptoms.

Symptoms of a foodborne illness are “very, very common,” Gravani said, including “nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and feelings of malaise and tiredness.” There can also be fever, and abdominal pain and cramps, according to the Mayo Clinic, which says that symptoms can start within a range of hours, days or even weeks after eating the contaminated food.

Who is at risk of food poisoning?

Some 48 million people in the United States get sick from foodborne illnesses each year, Gravani said. “That's about one in six Americans.”

Whether you become ill after eating contaminated food “depends on the organism, the amount of exposure, your age and your health,” according to the Mayo Clinic. People who are vulnerable to food poisoning are really some of the same people vulnerable to COVID, Gravani said. That includes “young kids under five; older adults over 65; certainly pregnant women; people with compromised immune systems that have been weakened from medical conditions (like) diabetes, liver disease, kidney disease, or organ transplant; folks who are vulnerable with HIV or AIDS; and those going on chemotherapy or radiation … so there's a whole cadre of people.”

While for some it’s a matter of feeling sick for a few days, food poisoning can potentially be life-threatening for young children, pregnant women and their fetuses, older adults, and people with weakened immune systems, according to the Mayo Clinic.

When should you see a doctor?

If you've got bloody diarrhea, said Gravani, “That’s a ‘let's get to the doctor’ kind of thing.” Also “if the symptoms persist or become very severe, you have excessive nausea and vomiting, or high fever,” you should also seek medical care.

How can you avoid food poisoning?

The USDA recommends four major areas that they encourage people to think about to prevent foodborne illness, Gravani said. “It’s four words: clean, separate, cook and chill.”

So that’s washing your hands and surfaces properly and often (which we’ve all learned about recently, he said). If you can’t access or bring water for handwashing, pack washcloths or paper towels, and use an alcohol based hand sanitizer with at least 60 percent alcohol.

It’s important to keep raw meat and poultry products away from cooked foods (a big culprit, Gravani said, is putting cooked meat on the same plate you carried it on raw). And cooking foods to the right temperature, and keeping them hot is critical.

It’s also crucial to refrigerate or cool foods properly. For outdoor dining, Gravani recommends using a separate cooler for beverages so that perishables maintain temperature in one that’s not constantly being opened and closed.

In addition to taking steps to keep our foods safe, Gravani said, we should also keep up with recalls. He suggests the FoodKeeper app, which in addition to offering food storage and safety tips, can notify users of food recalls.