While there are tons of healthy foods around, many of them can wreak havoc on the body if they are stored incorrectly. It’s important to take precautions to ensure that foods stay as fresh as possible in order to keep harmful bacteria at bay. However, the increase in festivities during the summer months can make that challenging.
Gwen Hyland, technical information specialist from the Food Safety and Inspection Service’s Food Safety Education Staff, says that bacteria multiply quicker in the summer months when higher temps create an ideal breeding ground for bacteria. “During the summer months,” Hyland said, “there’s an upswing in foodborne illnesses because outside activities increase. More people are cooking outside at picnics, barbecues, and on camping trips and the safety controls that a kitchen provides… are usually not available.” (1)
Tips to avoid foodborne illnesses year-round
Here are ways to stay safe when eating, not just in the summer months, but all year long.
Skip pre-cut cantaloupe
Many stores sell fruits that have already been cut, but rather than see it as a convenience, take the time to cut it at home. Some fruits, such as cantaloupe, naturally harbor bacteria due to their soft outer rind, explains food safety scientist Doug Powell. (2) When this fruit is cut, any bacteria on the rind is pushed down into the part that’s ingested. Considering that Salmonella outbreaks related to cantaloupe have made headlines in recent years, it’s best to play it safe. In the case of cantaloupe, refrain from eating ones that have been pre-cut and resting on shelves for a while and instead select whole foods that can be cut at home and then kept cool in a refrigerator.
Pass on plastic
Worse than eating certain foods that have been pre-cut is eating ones that are pre-sliced, covered with plastic and not refrigerated. Many stores do this, says Powell, storing foods in open, non-refrigerated areas. “This is microbiological disaster waiting to happen,” he warned. “Bacteria will grow if left out at warm temperatures long enough.” (2)
Additionally, don’t store leftovers (or anything for that matter) in plastic containers. The containers typically contain bisphenol A (BPA), which disrupts hormones, making it a very unhealthy storage option. (3) The safest, most Earth-friendly choice is to use glass containers.
There are many who advocate washing certain foods, such as fruits and vegetables, to remove chemicals residues, but experts say that washing raw meat only spreads germs that would have otherwise been harmlessly cooked. Keeping hands and surfaces clean is also essential. Hyland explains that it’s important to remain mindful of what activities a person was engaging in prior to food handling. Playing with pets, changing diapers, using the restroom and other similar behaviors all require hand-washing with warm soapy water.
It’s also important to keep an eye on utensils and silverware, especially as it applies to cross-contamination. For example, make sure to enjoy salad from a clean plate, not one that may have been holding a raw piece of meat from that barbecue bash moments earlier.