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With the COVID-19 restrictions easing, many of us are looking forward to July 4th as a weekend to celebrate and reunite with friends. For many Americans, July 4th is their favorite holiday – a time spent lounging by the pool, or playing and grilling in the sun. A lot of hard work goes behind the scenes to run your 4th of July party. When planning your menu, it’s important to consider food safety as part of the equation.

Foodborne illness is much more common during the summer months due to the heat. There are many pathogenic germs and pathogens that can lead to foodborne illness or food poisoning. Raw foods can be contaminated with bacteria, viruses, parasites or other harmful toxins and must be cooked to remove these parasites. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 48 million people contract foodborne illness each year after consuming contaminated food. Bacteria love heat, and foodborne pathogens should always be on the radar when cooking and serving food. This awareness should be heightened during the hot summer months.

On July 4th, food is often prepared, served, and kept outside for partygoers to munch on while relaxing in the company of friends and family. It is important to consider the steps you can take to minimize the risk of foodborne illness when planning your celebration. Let’s use these four tips to walk through any critical control points you might encounter while cooking this weekend.

1 Thoroughly clean all utensils and counters involved in preparation and serving.

Before removing food from the refrigerator and beginning the preparation process, all surfaces and utensils should be thoroughly washed and sanitized with lukewarm water and soap to avoid cross-contamination. This includes countertops, cutting boards, plates, forks, spoons, knives and serving items. Another important surface that we need to clean are your hands. To prevent the spread of germs and foodborne pathogens, it is imperative that you wash your hands before starting preparation and after handling food. If you switch between tasks, be sure to wash your hands each time. One thing hammered at us during the pandemic is how to wash your hands – ideally with antibacterial soap and lukewarm water for at least 20 seconds, or as long as it takes to sing your ABC twice.

2 Always separate raw and cooked foods and anything they touch.

This is especially the case when it comes to meats! Separating uncooked from cooked foods is essential to avoid cross-contamination. This not only applies to food, but also to utensils, surfaces and dishes that come into contact with raw meats and their juices. In a perfect world, we have two sets of utensils for raw food and a different set for its finished product. Many restaurant chefs have color-coded utensils to identify which one is reserved for raw meat versus its cooked counterpart. If you check the progress of your cooking using the same tongs that you handled raw meat with, you will likely contaminate your steak. Make sure you have enough utensils on hand for this and disinfect them after use. In addition to utensils, pay attention to the surfaces raw meat and its packaging meet. E. coli can live on surfaces for up to 24 hours. Be sure to throw away the packaging of your raw food immediately. It is best to pre-cook on different surfaces for raw and cooked foods. If you are using the same counter space, make sure all raw foods are removed and surfaces have been cleaned and sanitized to get rid of any juices or residue before taking out salads or cooked foods.

3Use a food thermometer to make sure you are cooking at the correct internal temperature.

It might sound “extra” to use a food thermometer, but it could be the difference between having a fun and relaxing evening and having to cut the party short. All meats, poultry and seafood must be cooked properly to kill bacteria that could cause food poisoning. Different meats have different temperature requirements. The USDA recommends the following safe internal temperatures:

Beef, pork, lamb and veal (steaks, roasts and chops): 145 degrees Fahrenheit with 3 minutes rest after cooking

Fish: 145 degrees Fahrenheit

Ground meats (beef, pork, lamb and veal): 160 degrees Fahrenheit

Poultry (whole and ground): 165 degrees Fahrenheit

When using your food thermometer, be sure to insert the probe into the thickest part of the meat to get the most accurate reading. If the meat is evenly thick, you’ll want to stick the probe in the center. Often the meat looks “done” but has not yet reached its safe internal temperature. The eye test is not enough when it comes to food safety!

Once your meat is cooked, let it cool quickly. If you’re planning a big party with plenty of leftovers, store extra food in several shallow containers while it’s still hot so it will cool down faster in the fridge / freezer.

4 Cool your food at the correct time and temperature.

Now that we have followed the food safety protocol while cooking, we also need to maintain it while serving. For many July 4th celebrations, food is served outside, or we leave plates and appetizers on the counter for guests to graze. The more food is left out, the greater the risk of food poisoning, especially outdoors. When the temperature of cooked food rises, the natural bacteria in the food can release toxins that lead to disease – again, bacteria love heat. Perishable foods should not be left outside without refrigeration for more than two hours. If the outside temperature is above 90 degrees (hello, Houston), the food should not be left out for more than an hour. Grill leftovers, cold salads, cold cuts, and cut fruits and vegetables should all be kept in coolers or containers with ice packs at or below 40 degrees Fahrenheit.

Sometimes time escapes us, especially when it comes to adult drinks. If you’re not sure how long your food has been outside, throw it out, it’s not worth it!

Emma Willingham is a registered dietitian practicing in an outpatient clinic and through her private practice, Fuel with Emma. You can find her on social media at @fuelwithemma.

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