08/28/2013 11:24 am ET Updated Oct 28, 2013

Winding Down Summer With Healthy Reminders

Even as August is winding down, the hot and humid days of summer cause bad hair, wrinkled clothes and mildew. As the heat and humidity increase, so do your chances of contacting food poisoning. So before you taste your Aunt Bea's potato salad at the family reunion or buy a chicken kabob at a country fair, consider this: Those bacteria which, once in your intestinal tract, make you wonder if you will survive the night, may be reproducing faster than mosquitoes in a bird bath in that salad or on the skewered chicken. Caution and precaution are your only defense against unwittingly going on a contaminated food diet.

Also be aware that the heat and humidity of summer make your car and your kitchen an incubator for breeding bacteria. The trunk is not a place for storing perishable groceries. It is simply too hot. Remember that fresh meat, chicken or fish contain contaminated liquid, so bag them in a separate plastic bag to keep their juices away from your produce when inside the grocery bag or on the kitchen counter. Any item that should be frozen or refrigerated should be put away as soon as you get home. Don't leave it on the counter while you decide what to make for dinner. And, by the way, that kitchen counter and cutting board are also good breeding grounds for bacteria. Make sure they are clean. Sponges are a wonderful place for bacteria to grow; wash them in the dishwasher, washing machine or in the sink with very hot water. Use disposable wipes if you are dubious about whether you can keep the sponges sufficiently clean. Sponges should not become an indoor compost heap.

Were you told that you must let cooked food cool down before refrigerating it? If so, don't. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, unless you are about to consume that mac and cheese casserole or roast chicken as soon as it is ready, cool it rapidly by putting it in the freezer and then, once it is cool, (unless you want it frozen) refrigerate it. [1] The CDC adds something most of us are not aware of: Don't crowd the refrigerator. Too much food pushed together decreases air circulation and cooling. Need the following be said? Don't hold the refrigerator door opened for any longer than necessary. It's not that interesting inside and while you are wondering on what you can nibble, the cool air is getting out.

Recipes suggest serving foods at room temperature because cold foods sometimes lose their flavor. Nonetheless, the hummus or crabmeat dip will have to sacrifice flavors for safety. Keep them cold or, where appropriate, very hot.

Blue and green may be your favorite colors but when they decorate the surface of your leftovers or streak your cheese, throw them out. Indeed, three days is about long enough for leftover fish and houseguests. Freezing leftovers is probably a better option, unless you tend to forget about them when they are in the freezer. Labeling your frozen dishes with dates is a useful habit.

You are able to control the safety of food in your own kitchen, of course, but food prepared in other kitchens presents potentially greater hazards. Years ago we were at a dinner party at the home of a somewhat flaky hostess. As I was helping to stack plates from the main course into the sink, I noticed her opening jars of what looked like preserved peaches. What I really noticed was an inch of grayish fuzz on top of the peaches. "Oh this is just some mold," I heard her say. "If I wipe it off, the peaches should be all right." I tried to say something but she brushed aside my protestations so I did the next best thing. I whispered to my husband that under no circumstances was he to touch the dessert. The next day she called to find out how we were feeling.

Unless a brunch or dinner party is in an unheated cabin in the Arctic, beware of foods sitting out for more than a few minutes. A warm room can put some extra protein in those serving platters in the form of bacteria. This is also true of foods on picnic tables during a cookout. Bacteria love to settle in mayonnaise, sour cream and soft cheeses, and they become happy little organisms residing in sun-warmed potato or pasta salads. The same is true of any cream or egg-filled dish.

Ideally, containers of food that should be kept cold should be in pans of ice that are replenished as the ice melts, but it is doubtful that many picnic tables are set up this way. Raw hamburger or chicken waiting to be grilled should be in the refrigerator until cooking time, not warming up in a humid, hot air mass. If the temperature is high enough, then the bacteria may be grilled out of existence but the only way to tell is to whip out your food thermometer and check the temperature of the chicken thigh or hamburger.

However, unless you are wearing a white lab coat with a badge from the department of Public Health, people may think you strange if you take the temperature of your steak. So if your host is somewhat casual about safe food preparation, choose foods that are probably resistant to bacterial growth like chips, fresh fruit and vegetables, and hot dog rolls (without the hot dog).

Food vendors, be they at sit-down restaurants or standing at a cart selling corndogs at a fair, must be licensed and inspected by local departments of public health. But this doesn't mean that you can be confident that the food handler is abiding by good food practices. Use common sense. If the barbecued chicken or coleslaw is being served from containers sitting in a hot food truck or baking under the sun of a fairground, resist temptation to eat them. Is the server wearing plastic gloves, or making your tuna salad wrap with his or her bare hands? Want to put tartar sauce on your fried clams? How long has that container been sitting on the condiment shelf? All day? Interestingly, the foods which may shorten your life span because of their excessive fat content (e.g., fried Oreos or fried butter) are unlikely to give you food poisoning because the temperature of the oil in which they are deep fried is so high. Every cloud has a silver lining!

And finally, don't forget to wash your hands before eating. Your mother was right about that hint as well.



For more by Judith J. Wurtman, Ph.D., click here.

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