The season of outdoor dining, backyard barbecues, family picnics and weekend camping trips is finally here. But it's also the season that brings a greater risk of food poisoning.
Health Canada estimates that as many as 13 million cases of food-borne illness occur in Canada every year, most of which can be prevented by handling foods safely.
The risk of food poisoning rises in the summer because bacteria that cause illness, such as salmonella and E. coli, thrive in hot, humid weather. These invisible microbes grow and multiply rapidly in what's called the danger zone, a temperature range of 4 to 60 degrees C.
Eating outdoors also means that the safety controls of your kitchen - thermostat-controlled cooking, refrigeration and washing facilities - aren't always available.
Symptoms such as stomach cramps, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, chills and fever can develop rapidly, within an hour after eating a contaminated food, or slowly worsening over days to weeks, when they are no longer clearly linked to a particular food.
To help ensure that your meals are as safe as possible this summer, take the following quiz to brush up on your food-safety know-how. Be honest; don't look ahead at the answers.
1. It's best to rinse meat and poultry under cold running water before cooking. True or False?
Answer: False. This is not recommended. In fact, you can increase your risk of food poisoning if you do so. Rinsing meat or chicken can scatter bacteria to the countertop and other ready-to-eat foods. Bacteria that may be present on the surface of raw meat or poultry will be destroyed only by cooking to proper temperatures.
2. Where is the safest place to thaw steaks you intend to grill later in the day?
a) On the kitchen counter;
b) In a sink of cold water;
c) In the microwave;
d) In the fridge.
Answer: d). Never defrost food at room temperature. Thaw food in the refrigerator. If you will be grilling the steaks right away, you can thaw them in the microwave or a sink of cold water (replace water every 30 minutes). If you plan to marinate your steaks, do so in the fridge, not on the kitchen counter.
3. It's safe to partly cook meat and finish grilling it at your picnic. True or False?
Answer: False. Partly precooking meat is a good way to reduce grilling time. But unless you're going to grill that meat immediately after you precook it, this isn't safe because bacteria grow quickly on partly cooked food.
You can, however, completely precook meat or poultry for a picnic. Just be sure to allow plenty of time to chill thoroughly before you pack it in the cooler.
4. Leftover marinade can be used as sauce for grilled meat. True or False?
Answer: False. Sauce that has been used to marinate raw meat, poultry or seafood should not be used on cooked foods. Boil leftover marinade for one minute before using it on cooked food.
5. It's a warm sunny day and you're on a picnic. Where should you store your cooler?
a) In the trunk of the car away from pests;
b) Under the shade of a tree;
c) Beside the picnic table;
d) None of the above.
Answer: b). To keep cold foods cold when outdoors, keep your cooler out of the sun. Place it under a tree, or cover it with a blanket or tarp. When it comes time to cook, remove from the cooler only the amount of raw meat that will fit on the grill.
A full cooler will maintain its cold temperature longer than one that is partly filled. If it isn't full, fill the space with plenty of extra ice or freezer packs. Transport the cooler in the back seat of your air-conditioned car, not the hot trunk.
6. You're grilling burgers for dinner. What's the best way to tell if your beef patty is safe to eat?
a) It's no longer pink in the centre;
b) Its juices run clear;
c) Its internal temperature has reached 71 C (160 F);
d) It has been cooked five minutes per side.
Answer: c). In order to kill harmful bacteria in ground meat, burgers must be cooked properly. The only reliable way to know if your burgers are done is to test each one with a digital meat thermometer. You can't judge by colour - beef patties may be brown in the centre before reaching a safe temperature, or can stay pink after reaching the right temperature.
Cook beef burgers to an internal temperature of 71 C (160 F) and poultry burgers to 74 C (165 F).
7. Your beer-can chicken (whole) is safe to eat when it has reached an internal temperature of:
a) 85 C; (185 F);
b) 74 C (165 F);
c) 77 C (170 F);
d) 63 C (145 F).
Answer: a). Use a digital meat thermometer to ensure that whole chicken reaches a safe temperature. Check the internal temperature in the innermost part of the thigh and wing and the thickest part of the breast. Chicken pieces should be cooked to 74 C (165 F). A whole chicken requires a higher internal temperature than chicken parts to ensure any potential bacteria in the cavity are killed.
8. You're entertaining in the backyard on a very hot day. How long can you leave foods to sit out?
a) 2 hours;
b) 30 minutes;
c) 1 hour;
d) 3 hours.
Answer: c). In hot weather (32 C/90 F), don't leave foods sitting out for more than one hour. For temperatures that aren't quite as hot, foods should not sit out longer than two hours. Food that is left outside too long may look and taste fine, but can be teeming with harmful bacteria. When in doubt, throw it out.
9. When camping, it's okay to drink water from a stream as long as it's clear and running fast. True or False?
Answer: False. Water flowing in the streams and rivers of the wilderness may look clean, but it can still be contaminated with bacteria, viruses and parasites. Purify water if it looks clean; boil water for one minute or use water-purification tablets and water filters (available at stores that sell camping gear).
10. Which can help reduce the formation of heterocyclic amines (HCAs) in grilled meat?
a) Partly precooking meat in the microwave;
b) Marinating meat before grilling;
c) Flipping burgers every minute during cooking;
d) All of the above.
Answer: d). Cooking meat at high temperatures when grilling, broiling and frying creates HCAs - potential carcinogens - that are not present in uncooked meats. All of the above methods have been shown to substantially reduce the amount of HCAs in cooked meat.
How did you score?
Add up the number of correct answers to determine your score.
8 to 10 - Great. Move to the head of the class.
5 to 7 - Not bad. Review your answers to see where you can improve.
Less than 5 - Uh-oh. Time to go back to food-safety school.
For more food safety tips, visit www.canfightbac.org, the website of the Canadian Partnership for Consumer Food Safety Education.
Leslie Beck, a Toronto-based dietitian at the Medcan Clinic, is on CTV's Canada AM every Wednesday. Her website is lesliebeck.com.