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Summer is the time to eat outside, at barbecues, picnics, or on the backyard patio. But as much as we love dining alfresco, so do E. coli, salmonella and Campylobacter. Warmer temperatures allow food poisoning bacteria to multiply quickly.

Health Canada estimates between 11 million and 13 million Canadians suffer from a food-borne illness every year. Some people view food poisoning as a short-term inconvenience. But for others – young children, pregnant women, the elderly and people with weak immune systems – food poisoning can be serious, even fatal.

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're no longer clearly linked to a particular food.

There's no way to tell if a food is contaminated. You can't see, smell or taste bacteria that cause food poisoning. The only way to guard against food-borne illnesses is to handle foods safely in the first place.

Keep it clean

Wash hands (for at least 20 seconds), utensils and cooking surfaces with hot soapy water before and after handling food. Using a disinfectant cleaner or a mixture of bleach and water (1 teaspoon bleach per 3 cups water) on surfaces can provide added protection against bacteria.

Wash fresh vegetables and fruit with cool running water to remove dirt and residue. Before cutting, scrub fruits and vegetables that have firm surfaces or rinds such as carrots, oranges, melons and potatoes. Cut away damaged or bruised areas on produce, places where bacteria can thrive.

Separate raw and cooked

Cross-contamination is the spread of bacteria from food to people, people to food, or from one food to another. Separate raw meat, poultry and seafood from other foods in the refrigerator. Store in plastic bags or sealed containers on the lowest rack in the fridge to prevent juices from leaking onto other foods.

Use separate cutting boards and utensils for raw meats and vegetables. Never put cooked food on a dish that previously held raw food. If you plan to use leftover marinade as a sauce on cooked foods, boil it first.

Thaw safely

Never defrost food on the kitchen counter at room temperature. Doing so allows bacteria to grow on the food. Thaw food in the refrigerator.

If you plan to cook food right after thawing, you can thaw it in the microwave or a sink of cold water (replace water every 30 minutes).

If you plan to marinate meat or poultry, do so in the fridge – not on the kitchen counter.

Cook thoroughly

Prepare foods quickly, cook them thoroughly and serve immediately after cooking. Use a digital instant-read meat thermometer to ensure foods are cooked to a safe temperature (see chart).

In order to kill harmful bacteria in ground meat, cook burgers properly. You can't judge by colour – beef patties may be brown in the centre before reaching a safe temperature (71 C), or can stay pink after reaching the right temperature.

Don't partially cook before the picnic

Partially 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, as bacteria grow quickly on partially cooked food.

You can 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.

Keep foods chilled

Refrigerate or freeze prepared food and leftovers within two hours. If cooking ahead of time, divide large portions of hot food into small, shallow containers to ensure safe, rapid cooling. Don't overstuff the fridge. Cold air needs to circulate above and beneath food to keep it properly chilled.

Don't overstuff the cooler

A full cooler will maintain its cold temperature longer than one that's partially filled. If it isn't full, fill the space with plenty of extra ice or freezer packs to ensure a constant cold temperature. Transport the cooler in the back seat of your air-conditioned car, not the hot trunk.

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.

Observe the one-hour rule

Disease-causing bacteria multiply rapidly in what's called the danger zone, a temperature range of 4 C (40 F) and 60 C (140 F). 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, don't keep foods out for longer than two hours.

Food that's left outside too long can look and taste fine, but may be teeming with harmful bacteria. When in doubt, throw it out.

Leslie Beck, a registered dietitian, is the National Director of Nutrition at BodyScience Medical. She can be seen every Thursday at noon on CTV NewsChannel's Direct.

Safe cooking temperatures

Use a digital meat thermometer to ensure food has reached an internal temperature high enough to kill bacteria that cause illness.


63 C for medium rare

71 C for medium

77 C for well done

Beef burgers 71 C

Turkey/Chicken burgers 74 C

Chicken, whole 85 C

Chicken, parts 74 C

Pork (medium) 71 C

Source: Canadian Partnership for Food Safety