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Advice to Avoid Food-Borne Illness Especially in Summer and in Tropical Climates


Summer Food Safety

Summer is a time for barbecues, picnics and camping trips. However, fun outdoor meals can come with an increased risk of food borne illness (food poisoning) without thoughtful care and preparation. Food borne illness is caused by eating food contaminated with bacteria, viruses and/or parasites. Common causes of food borne illness are from Norovirus, Listeria, Salmonella, E. coli 0157:H7 and Campylobacter. Health Canada estimates there are about 4 million cases of food borne illness every year in Canada. Most food borne illnesses are entirely preventable. Health Canada estimates there are about 4 million cases of food borne illness every year in Canada. Most food-borne illnesses are entirely preventable. No doubt there are many more across the USA and in tropical climate areas of Asia, The Caribbean and Americas, and South East Asia.

The risk of food borne illness can increase during the summer because:

  1. hot and humid weather creates prime conditions for bacteria to grow and thrive
  2. people are less likely to follow food safety guidelines, like hand washing and keeping food cool, when cooking and eating outdoors

Symptoms common to most food borne illnesses are cramps, diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, headaches and fever. Symptoms usually appear within several hours of eating the contaminated food, but can take several days or weeks to appear. Most people recover completely from food borne illness. Some people will have longer lasting and more serious effects. The severity of illness depends on the type of bacteria, and the overall health of the person eating it.

The following tips will help you reduce your risk of food borne illness.

  • Keep food cold. Bacteria multiply fastest between 4°C and 60°C (40°F – 140°F) – also called the ‘danger zone’.
    • Bring along ice packs to pack around perishable foods. Some foods, such as frozen juice boxes, can act as ice packs and will keep other foods cool as they thaw
    • Pack the cooler until it is full. This will keep the food cold longer. Keep the cooler out of the sun and keep the lid on as much as possible. If you can, keep snacks and drinks in a separate cooler. These are things you will access often and every time you open the cooler, you let warm air in
    • Refrigerate or freeze food the day before your outing so it is already cold when you put it into the cooler
    • Marinate your meat in the fridge ahead of time, and not on the counter or out in the heat
    • Mayonnaise is made from Raw Egg and will not be fit for consumption if left warm even for a few hours. Sauces, deviled eggs, and other such preparations made using mayonnaise should be kept refrigerated. Containers of Mayonnaise should not be left outdoors covered. The product MUST be refrigerated. When serving, place the bowl of sauce into another bowl filled with ice cubes. Keep the bowl and all foods covered to avoid insects touching food and to prevent bacteria falling out of the air into the food.
  • Avoid cross-contamination. Keep raw meat, fish, poultry and eggs away from fresh fruits and vegetables and cooked foods.
    • Pack a separate cooler to keep ready-to-eat foods away from foods that need cooking, or pack raw meats on the bottom of a single cooler so their juices don’t drip onto, and contaminate, ready-to-eat foods
    • Use ice packs instead of loose ice. Loose ice will melt and can transfer bacteria from one food to another
    • In the USA bird eggs are washed before going to market…Not so in many other countries. I presently live in South East Asia. I recommend washing eggs before cracking them open. Just consider where they’ve been and the germs you may pick up from the edge of the broken shells! I lower the eggs into dishing washing water, let them soak a minute, then gently wash and rinse well, and then open them into a bowl for inspection before using them. Here, many eggs are not refrigerated before going to market and some may be more than 15 days old and rotted, so the consumer must be extra careful. 
  • Wash your hands, the cooking utensils and surfaces with hot soapy water (for at least 20 seconds).
    • Bring along 2 sets of cutting boards, utensils, etc: 1 for ready-to-eat foods and 1 for raw foods. Keep each in a separate, sealed plastic bag to prevent cross contamination
    • Use hand sanitizer and antibacterial wipes for hand and surface cleaning if there is no hot soapy water available. Remember, hot soapy water is the best option for removing bacteria and dirt so wash these surfaces as soon as you can
  • Cook foods to the appropriate cooking temperature.
    • Take along a meat thermometer. Refer to the chart below for the proper temperatures
    • Preheat the grill for about 20 minutes before cooking
    • Do not put cooked food back on the same plate that held the raw food (unless you have washed it with hot soapy water first)
Food Internal temperature
Hamburgers 160°F (71°C)
Steak – medium rare 145°F (63°C)
Steak – medium 160°F (71°C)
Steak – well done 170°F (77°C)
Poultry 165°F (74°C)
Fish 158°F (70°C); until it is opaque and flakes easily
Hot dogs 165°F (74°C)
  • Make sure your water source is safe. Even if a lake or river looks safe, it may not be. Only use water from a source you know to be safe.
    • Use bottled water for drinking, cooking and brushing teeth
    • Boil untreated water at a rolling boil for two minutes before using. If boiling water is not possible, use water purification tablets or water filters and follow the manufacturer’s instructions

For tips on what to look for when buying food at a festival or other public event, read the Fraser Health Authority news item Don’t let Salmonella or E. coli take the fun out of your summer. For more information about food borne illness visit the Government of Canada and the BC Centre for Disease Control websites.

Rates of food poisoning increase in summer months because bacteria grow faster in warmer weather. Eating food left in the Danger Zone (40°F to 140°F) for too long can make people sick. Many refrigerators do not cool below 40 degrees F and even cooked foods held in the “fridge” can spoil over a 2 or 3 day period. Eat left-overs as soon as you can.

  • Keep raw meat, poultry, and seafood chilled until ready to grill, in the fridge or in an insulated cooler, below 40°F.
  • Put leftovers in the freezer or fridge within two hours of cooking –or ONE hour if above 90°F outside.
  • Throw away any remaining perishable food that isn’t refrigerated.

Cook meat thoroughly

It’s important to cook food to a safe internal temperature to destroy harmful bacteria. Never partially grill meat and finish cooking it later.

  • Use a food thermometer to make sure meat is cooked hot enough to kill germs. You can’t tell just by looking at it! (145°F for beef, pork, fish; 160°F for hamburgers and ground meat; 165°F for chicken or turkey).
  • If you’re smoking meat, keep the temperature inside the smoker at 225°F to 300°F.
  • Keep cooked meats hot and out of the Danger Zonebefore serving.

Clean hands and produce

  • Wash fresh vegetables and lettuce. If you’re not sure whether water will be available to wash on site, rinse produce before packing for the picnic.
  • Wash your hands before handling any food AND after touching raw meat, poultry, or seafood. If soap and water are not available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol. Whenever possible handle food with metal utensils instead of your hands.
  • Clean work surfaces, utensils, and the grill before and after cooking.
  • Examine the grill surface carefully for steel brush bristles that might have dropped off the grill brush. Steel brush bristles have been known to lodge in the stomach lining leading to pain and required surgery! It’s far better to clean the grill with a nylon bristle brush. You can wipe the grill with Muriatic Acid (found among cleaning supplies in your grocery store.) Let the acid and carbons react and when it cools wash it all clean.

Food borne illness is very difficult to trace. What you ate 10-days ago might make you sick, or what you ate an hour ago might make you sick. Saying, “I have done this for years and nothing has happened” only shows you never heard the stories or were unqualified to know illness was caused by food mishandling! Always be on the safe side and avoid potential causes of illness.

This article by Dr. Stephen Newdell with many notes from


Dr. Newdell’s final comments about Kitchen Hygiene: 

While we’re on this subject it’s only right that I also briefly discuss kitchen and food handling cleanliness.

I always begin cooking by filling a dish pan or sink full of soapy hot water. Many outside the USA have no hot water heaters and they wash dishes under cold running water rubbing with a sponge or their hand and some detergent. This is the LEAST efficient and most wasteful way to get the job done. Hot water kills bacteria and improves chemical reactions. It helps melt oils so the detergent can lift them off the dishes and utensils. Soak these things in the hot soapy water a while, then scrub with a dish cloth or sponge and then rinse. Do not dry with a towel. Let the items air dry. Towels harbor germs and only spread them around.

Meantime while you’re beginning you can constantly wash your hands in this pan and at the same time wash anything you are about to use or have used. Operating this way, everything stays clean constantly and by the time you’re done cooking most of the kitchen is clean too!

If you have hot water available for hand washing, use it around 115 degrees Fahrenheit or nearly as hot as you can stand. Dish washing machines run hotter, but they usually heat the water to the right temperature so you don’t have to think about it.

In tropical countries especially:  Wash vegetables thoroughly, wash your knives and cutting board between all operations, and particularly if you are changing from cutting meat to cutting vegetables. Meat can carry some very nasty bacteria. If meat has had flies on it in the market, or shows signs of blisters and bubbles it indicates extremely serious diseases. Don’t buy it! Don’t touch it!

All items are best purchased fresh and used the same day or refrigerated at 40 degrees F or a little colder.

In some tropical country homes the water supply is in a bucket which came from a well. No one knows if the well is safe and children dip their fingertips into the water while getting a cup to drink. Thus the dirt on their hands contaminates all the family’s water supply. You MUST think in terms of germs moving from location to location and be certain to keep things very clean. A long handled ladle for dipping water from a bucket is better and better still is a container with a spigot at the bottom.

It is easy to tell yourself, “This doesn’t pertain to me” but I am sure it does and will more in our future. Make being clean and careful a normal part of everyday living. That includes using clean towels and cleaning counter tops, and rinsing every dish and utensil under running water before using it, or when it seems appropriate.

Living in the tropics as I often do I have had a few bouts of digestive system illness. This is an unforgettable experience.


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