Being Summer Food Safe

(As featured in The Telegram on Monday, June 20th 2011)

With the recent food-borne illness outbreak from bean sprouts originating in Germany, food safety is surely on a lot of minds these days. Also, the (hopefully) warm weather summer events like picnics, barbecues and camping are times when people need to pay a little extra attention to being food safe. We really should think food safety all year round, however, especially so in the summer and for good reason. Outdoors, there is usually less access to common kitchen items to keep food safe ( i.e. places to wash our hands or a fridge to store food). In addition, a warm environment creates a happy playground for bacteria and bugs to grow in our food.

If you and your family are heading out for an activity for more than three hours it's a good idea to bring a meal or snack. The summer heat can really dehydrate us, and it's important to keep energy up. Be sure to bring plenty fluids like water, or 100% juice. Snacks like citrus fruit are great because they are light, on the stomach and backpack, and are full of water and energy. Prepacked fruit kebabs with assorted fruit are a fun, family friendly idea too. It's a versatile snack which kids will not only enjoy but will probably want to make too. Don't forget to wash all fruits, including melons like watermelon and cantaloupe. Bacteria and dirt can accumulate in the grinds and by cutting through unwashed you can transfer this to the edible part of the fruit. If you are planning to take sandwiches, salads, or other multiple foods, be sure to keep raw foods like eggs and meats away from fruits, vegetables and cooked foods to avoid potential cross contamination. If you're pairing your eating out adventure meal with a leafy lettuce salad, try a homemade dressing of balsamic vinegar and olive oil. It's a healthy choice, and likely more food safe than a dressing of higher risk ingredients like milk, cream or raw egg. If you are not bringing your own water or happen to run out, water can be safely purified by boiling for five minutes or using water purification tablets. This doesn't just apply to water you're going to drink, but also anything you use to cook food or brush teeth also. Even if lakes, rivers and streams look clean it's not worth taking the risk as you could get very sick!

One of the most important things to remember is that hot food should be kept hot and cold food cold. Easy enough, but what exactly is hot and cold? Keeping foods above 60°C (140°F) if hot, and foods below 4°C (40°F), the same temperature as our fridge, if cold are a must. Between 4-60°C (40-140°F) is called the 'danger zone,' meaning bacteria can easily grow here. Even at only two hours in this danger zone a food can become unsafe to eat and make people very sick. When it comes to keeping things cold, freezer ice packs tend to work better than ice as it stays frozen and colder longer. Semi melted ice and water also have the potential to carry contaminants to food. If you don't have an ice pack, or are trying to maximize space, bring along a frozen juice pack or water bottle. This can serve the purpose of keeping things cold and then later on being a refreshing drink. Try to pack wisely. A full cooler will stay cold longer than one that is partially full. If you are only using one cooler and have to pack meat, fish, chicken or eggs, be sure these are at the bottom. If you are packing homemade burgers keep the patties thin to ensure they are cooked full through (it helps to control portion size too!) Color alone is not a good indicator to determine if a food is fully cooked and ideally a thermometer should be used to verify this. For more information on heating foods like hamburgers, hot dogs, steaks or other summer foods, visit the Canadian Food Inspection Agency website at www.inspection.gc.ca.

Last but not certainly not least, it's really important to keep those hands clean! When having a meal or snack while out and about, be prepared and carry alcohol based hand sanitizer. Proper hand washing is the number one, not to mention easiest method to prevent you and your family from getting sick this summer, and all year round!