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How to prevent the stomach flu: A recipe for success

The emergence of flip-flops, wind and milk chocolate-colored rivers are sure signs of spring in Southwest Colorado.

With Memorial Day weekend on the horizon, we’ll soon break free of the indoor kitchen. One whiff of food cooking on the grill and the contagious barbecue bug magically instills the desire to follow suit.

Speaking of the bug, did you know barbecues, picnics and camping are prime environments for some undesirable ones to flourish? Not bugs you can see, such as mosquitoes, but the ones you can’t. These invisible pathogens with long-winded names can easily make themselves at home in your food.

One contaminated bite and you’re a victim of gastroenteritis, aka stomach flu or stomach bug. Technically, this is not the flu or a bug, but when you’re in the throes of food-borne illness, correct terminology is the least of your concerns. Food-borne illness happens more than you might think. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates 48 million people are affected annually.

What is it about outdoor dining that increases the risk for food-borne illness? Time, temperature and inadequate cleaning and sanitizing top the list. Visualize the environment of outdoor dining – family, friends, laughter, ice cold beverages, marinating meat and room-temperature finger foods. Laughter is harmless, what’s not is the following statistic: only 31% of men and 65% of women wash their hands after using the restroom, according to the CDC. Not to mention pathogens multiply rapidly at room temperature.

Soap and water, while apparently underused, are highly effective tools for prevention of food-borne illness. Three points of contact are key indicators it’s time to wash your hands: after using the restroom (even when no one is watching and you swear you didn’t touch anything), handling raw meat or touching the “T” zone on your face (eyes, nose and mouth). Ideally, social gatherings share memories, not germs. Your 80-year-old aunt and 3-year-old nephew may not tolerate a lapse of judgment as well as you do.

Beginning this Memorial Day weekend, ensure you create positive memories at family barbecues by establishing a safe food environment:

Bring, and use, a handwashing station, including clean water, soap and paper towels. Hand sanitizers may not be effective on visibly dirty hands, according to the CDC. Keep hot food hot and cold food cold. Food in the “danger zone” (40 to 140 degrees) has a one- to two-hour safety window. After that, toss out or cool to 40 degrees or below within two hours. Prevent cross-contamination. Separate ready-to-eat food, leftovers and beverages from raw meat. Separate ice for drinks from ice for cooling. Reserve one or more bags for beverages, and don’t forget an ice scoop. Remaining ice can be used for cooling; suggested ice-to-content ratio is 2:1. Grill to kill. Know safe internal temperatures for different cuts and sources of meat.For recipes (with safe food-handling reminders), food-safety fact sheets and thermometer calibrating instructions, visit the Extension Office’s website, www.laplataextension.org.

Free thermometers are available at the Extension Office, 2500 Main Ave.

Nicole Clark is the family and consumer science agent for the La Plata County Extension Office. Reach her at nicole.clark@colostate.edu or 382-6465.

Nicole Clark