Summer is nearly here, and with it comes festivals, fairs, carnivals, and amusement park visits.
While fun tends to peak during the warmer months, so does the risk of getting sick from contaminated food.
According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), foodborne illness peaks during the summer months for two reasons: bacteria multiply faster in warmer temperatures, and preparing food outdoors makes safe food handling more difficult.
When you prepare food at home, you can ensure safe handling procedures are followed.
But when you attend outside events, you have to rely on other people to prepare food safely. Unfortunately, the food and drinks that are offered at summer events can carry serious health risks.
Here’s how to prevent foodborne illness from ruining your family’s festivities.
The most important thing you can do is be sure and your family wash your hands – often.
- Find out where hand washing stations are located.
- Wash your hands with soap and clean running water for at least 20 seconds.
- Always wash hands after using the restroom, after playing a game or going on a ride, after petting animals, before eating and drinking, after changing diapers or cleaning up a child who has used the toilet, and after removing soiled clothes or shoes.
- Bring hand sanitizers or disposable wipes in case there aren’t any places to wash your hands.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says to consider the following before buying food from a vendor:
- Does the vendor have a clean/tidy workstation?
- Does the vendor have a sink for employees to wash their hands?
- Do the employees wear gloves or use tongs when handling food?
- Does the vendor have refrigeration on site for raw ingredients or pre-cooked foods?
- Has the vendor been inspected? Is a recent inspection report available? Requirements vary by state, but in general temporary and mobile vendors, like those at fairs and carnivals, should have a license to sell food and beverages in a particular state or county for a specific time period. You can check with the local health department to see if the vendors are licensed and if a food inspection has been completed.
Even experienced food operators and restaurant cooks face challenges when preparing items in a temporary booth or food truck, as pointed out by the Respro Food Safety blog:
Oftentimes, temporary food vendors are part-time cooks and may not have a complete knowledge of proper food safety practices or may never have taken a food safety training course. They may want to prepare food at home and then bring it to an event to sell. They may not bring adequate means to keep food hot or cold. They may not have an appropriate way to wash hands (and, by the way, hand sanitizers are not adequate). These things, if not handled properly, can lead to serious illness.
Preparing many different food items only compounds the problem. I would be concerned about a vendor trying to prepare chicken, beef, pork, rice and fresh salads all out of the same booth. The opportunity for cross-contamination is so great because of the limited space, lack of proper sanitizing and storage space. Do they have a separate cooler for each type of raw meat and ready-to-eat foods? If they don’t, I would keep walking. (source)
Here are some additional precautions you can take.
When possible, opt for drinks that are bottled and sealed and avoid ice (believe it or not, ice can become contaminated too!). Hot foods are generally less risky than cold, as long as it is served hot.
Prepackaged foods are usually a safe bet, as long as they came that way from the manufacturer and have not been opened and handled by people before being sold.
Raw fruits and vegetables that you can peel yourself are less risky than ones that have been precut or peeled. Avoid fresh salsas and other condiments that were made with fruits and vegetables.
Be especially careful with meat, poultry, and seafood products.
Know the symptoms of common foodborne illnesses and report them if you get sick.
To view a chart that lists foodborne disease-causing organisms that frequently cause illness in the United States, along with with their symptoms, duration of illness, and common food sources of each, please see What You Need to Know about Foodborne Illnesses. Did you know that the symptoms of some foodborne illnesses take several days to appear? Hepatitis A, for example, can take up to 28 days to cause obvious illness. Most foodborne illnesses begin to rear their ugly heads much sooner than that, though – E.coli infections typically take 1-8 days to cause illness, symptoms of salmonella usually appear within 6-48 hours, and noroviruses usually cause sickness 12-48 hours after exposure.
If you think you or a family member have gotten sick from food eaten at an event or amusement park, the CDC advises reporting the illness to the local health department.
Be particularly careful around animals.
Even if you are careful about the food and drink you consume at festivals, fairs, and parks, there is another health risk to be aware of: petting zoos and other animal exhibits. Every year, tens of thousands of Americans get sick from zoonotic diseases. Also known as zoonoses, these are infectious diseases that are spread between animals and people:
Zoonotic diseases are caused by harmful microbes like viruses, bacteria, parasites, and fungi. They can cause many different types of illnesses in people and animals ranging from mild to serious illness and even death. Some animals can appear healthy even when they are carrying infectious agents that can make people sick.
Scientists estimate that more than 6 out of every 10 known infectious diseases in people are spread from animals, and 3 out of every 4 new or emerging infectious diseases in people are spread from animals. (source)
Interacting with animals at fairs, festivals, amusement parks, and other events can be fun and educational, but it is important to follow some precautions to avoid illness. The most common harmful germs people get from animals at exhibits are E. coli O157:H7, Cryptosporodium, and Salmonella infections, but there are also many other types of germs that can spread between animals and people.
If you forget to wash your hands after petting an animal or bring food or drinks into an area with animals, you increase your chance of getting sick. Even animals that look clean and healthy can carry harmful germs, and areas where animals live or roam can be contaminated – you don’t even have to touch an animal to get sick. Adults over 65 years of age, children 5 years of age and younger, and people with weakened immune systems are more likely to get sick from the germs animals can carry, and should take extra precautions at animal exhibits.
To reduce your family’s risk of contracting illness from animals, wash your hands according to the guidelines listed earlier in this article. Do not carry food and drinks into areas where animals are and do not share your food with animals. Watch young children closely – do not let them kiss or hug animals, and be sure to prevent them from putting objects (pacifiers, toys, and fingers) in their mouths when they are around animals. The CDC recommends children 5 years of age and younger not have contact with reptiles, amphibians, and live poultry including baby chicks and ducklings because these animals are commonly associated with outbreaks of disease.
Reprinted with permission from The Organic Prepper.
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