Food-borne illnesses can strike after meals at restaurants or at home, and young children, who can get dehydrated quickly, are at greatest risk.
It’s easy to forget about the looming threat of food poisoning during end-of-summer picnics and barbecues and lingering over outdoor suppers, says Beth Turner. The scary truth: Staples like burgers, fresh seafood, chicken, egg salad, and even watermelon can make your family sick if you don’t wash, handle, cook, and store them properly.
Fortunately, most pathogens are killed by high temperatures, so even problem foods are safe as long as you cook them thoroughly. Refrigerating or freezing foods prevents most bacteria from multiplying. But if you leave lightly contaminated hot food — or your baby’s bottle of formula — at room temperature for hours, the number of organisms can skyrocket. The bacteria Staphylococcus aureus grows easily in moist, salty foods — such as a ham sandwich — and produces a toxin that causes intense vomiting.
Even when food poisoning is caused by bacteria, pediatricians usually don’t prescribe antibiotics, says Ari Brown, MD, author of Toddler 411. Some forms of E. coli can lead to kidney failure in young children, and experts believe that antibiotics can trigger this serious complication. And when a child has been infected with Salmonella, antibiotics may actually prolong the time it takes for the bacteria to leave the intestinal tract. However, antibiotics do help treat severe diarrhea caused by Shigella. Before prescribing antibiotics for your child, your pediatrician will probably do a stool culture to identify the organism.
Turner outlines 10 key steps the public may not be taking:
- Thaw frozen seafood, meat, and poultry in the refrigerator overnight, not on the counter. If you need to thaw food quickly, seal it in a plastic bag and put it in cold water for an hour, or microwave it on "defrost" and cook it immediately.
- If you plan to cook seafood, meat, or poultry within two days after you buy it, store it in the coldest part of the refrigerator. Otherwise, freeze it.
- Don’t buy cooked seafood, such as shrimp or crab, that is displayed in the same case as raw fish.
- Marinate food in the refrigerator, not on the counter. If you want to use the marinade as a dip or sauce, boil it before serving it.
- Keep hot food hot and cold food cold. Bacteria multiply rapidly between 40 degrees F. and 140 degrees F. Refrigerate leftovers after no longer than two hours.
- Periodically check that your fridge temperature is no higher than 40 degrees F. and your freezer is 0 degrees F.
- Sanitize your cutting board in the dishwasher or with hot, soapy water after and between cutting raw meat, poultry, or fish. It’s best to keep two boards on hand; designate one for fresh produce and the other for meats and seafood.
- Buy a meat thermometer. It makes it much easier to tell when meat or chicken is cooked thoroughly. Be sure to wash it between uses.
- Remove and discard the outer leaves of heads of lettuce, and thoroughly rinse bagged lettuce.
- Look for the new freshQ labels on packages of meat and poultry at the supermarket; the stickers — developed using military-defense sensor research — change color when the meat is spoiled.