SIKESTON -- As many people fire up the barbecue grills this Fourth of July, health officials warn the combination of warm weather and raw meat increases the risk of food-borne illnesses.
"Food safety is one aspect that is very often overlooked (by the general public)," said Myra Gunn, a registered dietitian for the Mississippi County Health Department. "A lot of times people have an upset stomach and it can actually be a food-borne illness."
Summer conditions provide an ideal situation for bacteria to multiply, which can lead to various symptoms of food-borne illness -- from an upset stomach and diarrhea to severe cramps and even a mild fever, Gunn noted. Following safety tips can help avoid bacteria as serious as E-Coli to the less serious gastrointestinal issues.
One of the biggest risks for food borne illness is cross- contamination of raw meat and cooked meat, Gunn said.
"People want to make sure they use separate utensils for raw food and cooked or ready-to-eat foods," Gunn said. "Or they should use warm, soapy water to clean the utensils before use again."
To sanitize utensils, use one teaspoon of bleach per quart of water in hot, soapy water, suggested Maude Harris, nutrition/health specialist for the University of Missouri Extension's Southeast Region.
"The best thing to do is use disposable plates and utensils and to keep washing your hands, especially if you do handle raw meats," Gunn recommended.
Another way to avoid cross-contamination is not to use a marinade on cooked meat or ready-to-eat foods after it's been exposed to raw meat, Gunn said. It's recommended to boil the marinade first or cook it with the meat to kill any bacteria, she said.
Also having separate cutting boards -- one for vegetables and one for meats is a good idea that helps avoid cross-contamination as well, said Natalie Allen, a registered dietitian at Barnes-Jewish Hospital in St. Louis.
The USDA advises to thaw meat evenly before grilling. The best way to thaw meat is in the refrigerator; using the microwave is OK as long as the meat is cooked right away.
Meats can also be thawed in cold running water -- but not sitting in water in the sink, Gunn added. And cooks should avoid countertop thawing. While some people may be careful with raw meats, they also need to be careful with fresh fruit and vegetables.
Make sure fresh fruits and vegetables are thoroughly washed before eating, especially melons, watermelon and cantaloupe," Gunn said.
"These fruits can carry bacteria on the outside of their rinds, and if you don't wash them and then cut through them with a knife, you are spreading bacteria through that melon," Gunn said.
Meat should also be cooked thoroughly. Although temperatures for each meat varies, 160 to 165 degrees is a safe temperature for all meats, Gunn said. Also cutting the thickest part of the meat to check for clear juice than blood, she added.
"Some meats stay pink, like smoked turkey, and that's why we really recommend meat thermometers because sometimes you can't tell without a thermometer," Harris noted.
Allen said kids are most at-risk for food-borne illness. "Since their bodies are so small if they eat a big portion of meat that hasn't been cooked well, it's going to be harder for them to defend against the bacteria than in an adult," said the St. Louis dietitian in a released statement.
The USDA recommends when keeping food stored in a cooler outside, store it in a shaded area to prevent from melting the ice, Harris said.
Discard any food left out more than two hours and one hour if the temperature is above 90 degrees, Harris said.
"If everyone practices food safety, it will reduce their risk of food-borne illness," Gunn said.