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When Panic Attacks
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Office Hours: Ask the Expert

Safe Sizzlin' for the Summertime

By Jessica DuLong

"A cooler is not a portable refrigerator!"

Now that you've sent the invitations, scrubbed the picnic table and dug the red, white and blue tablecloth out of back closet, it's time to deal with the shopping.

But before you zoom down that first aisle, list in hand, you should stop to strategize. Between mosquitoes, sunburn and bottle rockets, you might think food safety should be the last of your worries.

Not so, say the experts. After all, with icky-sounding names like salmonella, E. coli 0157:H7, listera and campylobacter, there are some guests you don't want to come to the party.

We asked Nadene Pazder, R.D., spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association, to give us the dos and don'ts of food safety and help keep Independence Day — and the rest of your summer — food-borne illness-free.

Party on

SavvyHealth: What is the most important thing you can tell people about food safety?

Nadene Pazder: The most important thing for people to know is that food safety is in their own hands. They have control over doing the easy things that can protect themselves and their families.

They need to wash their hands with soap often and clean cooking areas. They need to wash their hands between the fingers for at least 20 seconds, and to be sure their children do, too.

People also need to remember to wash their hands between different types of food. Working with raw chicken, for example. After you're done with the chicken, you've got to wash your hands before you start the salad.

And keep in mind that the spigot can get contaminated, too. If you touch the sink with raw chicken on your hands, you've got to wipe it clean.

SH: With summertime in full swing, what food safety tips should people keep in mind?

NP: Well, we recommend that you don't let perishables stay out at room temperature (around 72 degrees) for longer than two hours — and that includes the time in the grocery cart, in the car on the way home, and preparation time.

But, if you're outside at a picnic, the rules change. If the temperature is 80 degrees plus, perishables can be left out for one hour.

SH: You mentioned the grocery store. Do you have any particular shopping tips?

NP: It helps to plan your shopping. Make sure you pick your perishables last. You don't want to go to the meat section first. And at the checkout, keep cold foods together so they can keep each other cool.

Of course, you want to keep the raw meat and raw vegetables separate so there's no chance of contamination.

Also, lately, I've seen supermarkets with thermal bags. Those can help keep foods at the right temperature, so use those if they're available.

And obviously, go straight home. Don't stop at the pharmacy, get the dry-cleaning, or pick up your kids' graduation pictures on the way!

SH: What suggestions do you have for picnicking and grilling?

NP: I tell people, when packing the cooler they should start the night before. The food you put in the cooler needs to be in the fridge all night so it can cool down to the right temperature.

I see so many people make the potato salad the day of the picnic, then plop it into the cooler when it's still warm. A cooler is not a portable refrigerator! It's not going to cool things down properly.

And you should always keep the cooler in an air-conditioned car, not the trunk.

SH: Does the problem with potato salad have anything to do with mayo? Is it true that mayonnaise is dangerous?

NP: Mayo itself is not dangerous. It's when you add other food to it that there can be problems. Mayo has a high acid content, but when you put other food in, the pH increases to a more basic level where bacteria can grow comfortably.

SH: How about at a barbecue? What are proper grilling techniques?

NP: First, you need to cook with a meat thermometer. The internal temperature for beef should be 160 degrees and you need to put the thermometer through lengthwise, so you're getting into the center across the whole burger.

For chicken, you need to cook it to an internal temperature of 180 degrees. Put the thermometer into the meatiest part of the chicken, whether it's a leg or breast, away from the bone.

Only take out as much meat as you're going to cook. And use different plates for raw and cooked meats.

SH: Does cooking fish require the same kinds of precautions?

NP: With fish, the danger is parasites. You should cook it until it gets cloudy and white and flakes easily. We say to allow five minutes of cooking for each inch.

SH: Any other advice you can give people about how to eat safely this summer?

NP: If you have any doubt, whether it's fresh or a leftover, just throw it out. Don't take that risk.

Jessica DuLong is a managing editor at savvyHEALTH.com.

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