Why people should be especially vigilant about food safety this holiday, according to a doctor

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This Independence Day holiday takes place as record-breaking heat waves have spread across many parts of the US and the world, and the temperatures could be deadly. There’s potential for record-breaking heat and extreme heat risk for portions of the South and Southwest. California is likely to be especially hard hit, with highs passing 110 degrees Fahrenheit (43 degrees Celsius) in many areas.

At the same time, the avian influenza outbreak has spread to cows, raising questions about whether certain foods like milk, eggs and hamburgers remain safe.

As I drank lots of water and perspired through high temperatures and humidity at an outdoor concert this week, I thought about safely celebrating the Fourth of July holiday. What about all the grilled meat, burgers and potato salad sitting outside in the heat? How can we stay cool while attending picnics and barbecues during this holiday weekend?

Are there additional food safety precautions we should take, given the predicted high temperatures? And are there other health factors to consider this holiday, such as keeping cool and well-hydrated?

To help us with these questions, I spoke with CNN wellness expert Dr. Leana Wen. Wen is an emergency physician and clinical associate professor at the George Washington University. She previously served as Baltimore’s health commissioner.

CNN: Can you remind us why food safety is important?

Dr. Leana Wen: According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there are around 9 million episodes of foodborne illness annually. These illnesses primarily occur when people ingest food or drink that has been contaminated with bacteria, viruses or parasites.

Most episodes are mild, though even mild illnesses are unpleasant—they are generally characterized by nausea, vomiting, stomach pain and diarrhea. Some people can become very sick and require hospitalization, and unfortunately, some can die. Those at highest risk for severe illness include older individuals, children under 5, pregnant women, and individuals with weakened immune systems.

CNN: What food precautions should people take for barbecues and other outdoor gatherings?

Wen: Undercooked meat contains a lot of infectious organisms. The best way to make sure meat is cooked thoroughly is to use an internal thermometer.

I recommend this US government food safety website to check the internal temperature that different types of meat should be cooked to. For instance, chicken should be cooked to an internal temperature of at least 165 degrees Fahrenheit, and ground beef should be cooked to at least 160 degrees Fahrenheit.

Once the meat is cooked, keep it at 140 degrees Fahrenheit or above until serving to prevent germs from developing. Prior to cooking, refrigerate raw meat rather than keeping it at room temperature. It should be removed just before being placed on a barbeque.

CNN: Given how hot the weather might be this week, are there other specific factors to consider?

Wen: Yes. Under normal weather circumstances, the advice from the US Department of Agriculture is that perishable food can be unrefrigerated for up to two hours. However, if the temperature is above 90 degrees Fahrenheit, that’s reduced to one hour.

That applies to cooked meat like hamburgers as well as perishable salads like potato salad and cole slaw. In hot weather, these items should be eaten right away; if not, they should be refrigerated within an hour.

CNN: What about people who are having barbecues at parks or other places without refrigerators?

Wen: They should have a well-insulated cooler with lots of ice. Raw, uncooked meat should be kept at 40-degrees Fahrenheit or lower until it is ready to go on the grill.

I also recommend keeping uncooked meat in tightly sealed bags so that it does not contaminate other items that are served raw, like veggies and fruit.

Another precaution for barbeques is to keep an eye on what utensils and plates you use for raw meat versus other food. Label the utensils, plates and containers that come into contact with raw meat. Keep them separate from plates that contain salad items, fruit, chips, buns and other items.

CNN: And make sure to wash your hands after touching raw meat?

Wen: Yes, absolutely. You don’t want to go right from handling raw hamburger meat to making a salad. Make sure to wash your hands well with soap and water each time after handling raw meat.

CNN: Let’s talk about bird flu for a moment. Has the avian flu outbreak affected how we should think about eating products like hamburgers and chicken wings? Is it still safe to eat eggs and drink milk?

Wen: According to federal health officials, it is safe to continue eating these products as long as meat and eggs are cooked to the recommended temperatures.

It is also safe to keep drinking milk, though it’s crucial to emphasize that the milk needs to be pasteurized. Raw milk is not safe to drink. Not only can raw milk harbor bacteria, but it is also possible that raw milk can transmit the bird flu. It wasn’t advisable for people to drink raw milk or consume products made from raw milk prior to the bird flu outbreak, and it certainly is not advisable now.

CNN: We’ve talked a lot about food safety. What are other health issues to consider this Fourth of July?

Wen: If you will be in hot weather, be aware of the symptoms of heat exhaustion and heat stroke. Watch out for those who are most vulnerable to heat-related illnesses, specifically children, older adults and people with chronic medical conditions. Watch out for your pets as well. They can get overheated, too. Never leave pets or children unattended and in a car by themselves; the inside of the car overheats rapidly and these high temperatures can be fatal.

Everyone should try to stay in the shade when possible. Keep well-hydrated. Water is the best form of hydration, and be aware that excessive caffeine and alcohol can be dangerous during heat waves. Wear clothing that protects you from the sun, and make sure to apply and re-apply sunscreen often.

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