This year has already seen its share of foodborne illness. An E. coli outbreak linked to romaine lettuce had buyers wary of salads for months. A recent salmonella outbreak led to the recall of 200 million eggs tied to a North Carolina farm, and pre-cut melon is now the culprit in yet another spate of salmonella poisoning. It’s enough to make you want to skip the summer BBQ altogether, or at least eat before you go.
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reports 48 million cases of foodborne illness every year, which result in approximately 128,000 hospitalizations and 3,000 deaths—yet the food supply for the United States remains among the safest in the world. And while we can’t always anticipate food contamination, we can pay attention to how we prepare our own food—and make wise choices when eating off the party plate.
How long can you eat food that’s been sitting out?
Perishable foods such as dips, cheeses and meats that have been sitting out at room temperature should be eaten within two hours, according to the United States Department of Agriculture. Bacteria rapidly begin to grow on these types of foods at temperatures ranging between 40°F and 140°F.
If you’re the one serving food, you can extend this time period by making sure the cold food is sitting on ice or by putting out small portions of food and replacing it often with refrigerated portions. If you’re outside and it’s a 90-degree day, toss the cold stuff once every hour. Hard cheeses such as cheddar, Colby and Swiss can be wrapped back up after two hours and put in the fridge for another time. For hot food, use warmers to maintain a higher temperature and keep food safe.
If using coolers, be sure to separate food from beverages. Using separate coolers minimizes exposure of food to the warm air every time someone opens the cooler. Also keep meats in a cooler separate from other types of food such as fruits and vegetables to minimize risk of cross-contamination.
Additional food safety tips for summer include:
- Washing hands for 20 seconds before and after food handling (or having hand sanitizer readily available if a water source is not)
- Only eating meat or seafood that’s been thoroughly cooked (a meat thermometer is the best indication)
- Keeping hands clean while handling spices and jars, especially if cooking meat at the same time
- Never putting cooked meat on a plate that has already been used for raw meat
- Using different cutting boards for meats vs. produce
What can cause food poisoning?
Foodborne illness or food poisoning is caused by germs (bacteria, viruses and parasites) that can contaminate food and cause disease. Some common examples of these germs include norovirus, salmonella, Staphylococcus aureus (staph), listeria, E. coli, and clostridium botulinum (botulism). Common causes of food contamination include:
- Food handler’s hands not being washed
- Insufficient refrigeration of meats and foods that contain mayonnaise, like egg salad
- Raw produce coming into contact with an infected person’s hands
- Undercooked or raw food, such as hamburger or shellfish
- Unpasteurized milk and cheeses made with unpasteurized milk (breeding grounds for bacteria)
Food poisoning symptoms and treatment
- Muscle aches
- Stomach cramps
These symptoms of food poisoning may vary, depending on the person and the type of infection. Also, some types of food poisoning may produce mild symptoms while others could be life-threatening. Certain groups of people, including pregnant women, children, the elderly, and people with compromised immune systems, are more at risk for serious side effects from food poisoning.
Food poisoning duration is generally about 48 hours, again depending on the type and severity of your condition. How quickly you recover has a lot to do with your health history and current health condition. While recovering it also helps to:
- Replenish fluids lost from vomiting or diarrhea
- Avoid certain foods (e.g., alcohol, dairy, fatty/fried foods)
- Get plenty of rest to allow the body to regain strength
For severe food poisoning, such as with certain bacterial infections, your doctor may prescribe antibiotics. Food poisoning will generally go away on its own unless your symptoms are getting worse, or you have any of the following:
- Arm tingling
- Diarrhea that lasts longer than three days
- Dizziness, confusion
- Fever higher than 101.5°F
- Muscle weakness
If you have any other symptoms that are concerning you, be sure to call your provider right away.
And by all means, if you’re not sure how long the food has been sitting out at the party, take a pass—or stick to the chips.
Main Line Health serves patients at hospitals and health centers throughout the western suburbs of Philadelphia. To schedule an appointment with a specialist at Main Line Health, call 1.866.CALL.MLH (225.5654) or use our secure online appointment request form.