3 Rules for Summer Food Safety

If you think sunburn is your biggest worry this summer, consider this: Approximately 75 million cases of food-borne illness are reported every year, and more occur from June through August than during any other season, experts say. That’s because stomach-churning bacteria thrive in hot weather (especially 90°F-plus). Fortunately, recent research has identified important new steps you can take to protect yourself:

1. Make your marinade tangy.

Adding vinegar or lemon juice to your marinade could make your meat safer, according to a new study. “Acidic marinades tend to slow the growth of bacteria on meat,” says Melvin Hunt, PhD, a professor of food science at Kansas State University. Just soak properly: Marinate in the refrigerator, not on the counter. Poultry and cubed meats shouldn’t be marinated for more than two days, but it’s okay to leave beef, pork, and lamb in the mixture for five days.

2. Think temperature, not color, for burgers.

You can’t rely on color or texture to indicate doneness. In recent studies, factors like how ground beef was packaged affected the meat’s color as it cooked—some patties turned brown before they reached a safe temperature, while others were pink in the middle after thorough cooking. Heat your burger to an internal temperature of 160°F; use a food thermometer. You can be more relaxed about whole cuts of beef (if they haven’t been “blade-tenderized” or had flavoring injected) because surface bacteria are destroyed through cooking. These cuts are safe if cooked to 145°F.

3. Don’t count on prewashed.

Leafy greens (like lettuce, spinach, and cabbage) constitute the riskiest food regulated by the FDA, according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest. What’s more, bagged salad greens are more likely to cause digestive problems than whole heads. The reason: Cut leaves are more vulnerable to bacteria, and the large volume of greens handled together means a higher risk for cross-contamination. There’s no need to swear off salads, but do wash even prewashed lettuce and other cut greens. Thoroughly rinse leaves in cold water, use a salad spinner to remove most of the water, then blot dry with a clean cloth or paper towel. And don’t let a bag of lettuce sit around: Refrigerate it within two hours of buying, and use within a week.

Plus: Check out more summer safety tips.

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