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How to prevent foodborne illness at your summer barbecues

Summer means outdoor meals in the hot summer sun for many. However, backyard barbecues and high temperatures make the ideal breeding ground for bacteria in food.

One in six Americans suffer from foodborne illness each year, resulting in roughly 128,000 hospitalizations and 3,000 deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Hot and humid summer weather puts eaters at risk as bacteria grow fastest in a moist environment when temperatures range from 90 to 110 degrees Fahrenheit.

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Here are some tips to keep your food safe as it makes its way from the store to leftover containers.

At the store:

According to Mike Doyle, director of the Center for Food Safety at the University of Georgia, the risk for illness presents itself long before food is consumed.

"It's important to [shop safe] during the summer," Doyle said. "The peaks of foodborne illness outbreaks in these months are largely associated with temperature."

Frozen food should feel cold and solid with no tears, leaks or other damage within the packaging.

Doyle also recommends picking up eggs, meat and poultry at the end of a shopping trip to guarantee refrigeration up until checkout.

Packaging meats separate from other foods will decrease the chance for cross contamination.

At home:

Doyle stressed the importance of refrigerating food as soon as possible because bacteria at room temperature can double themselves in 20-30 minutes.

Meat and poultry that won't be consumed for 1-2 days should be frozen while all other cold foods should be immediately refrigerated.

Be careful when refrigerating items, as over-packing the refrigerator with food can prevent the circulation of cold air.

Because juices from meat can contaminate other foods, securing and sealing raw foods and storing them on lower shelves can help to keep a full fridge safe.

Preparing the food:

Katherine Zeratsky, a Mayo Clinic nutritionist, said that marinating, defrosting, cleaning and cutting foods are some of the easiest ways to spread bacteria in the kitchen.

"We often forget the importance of maintaining a clean kitchen. It is important to handle raw food cautiously," Zeratsky said.

Though you may have heard that washing raw meat helps to eliminate bacteria, Doyle said this is a myth. Because water can easily transfer onto kitchen surfaces, the process of washing meat produces a spray full of foodborne bacteria.

Keeping uncooked food away from open areas can also prevent germs from spreading.

Experts recommend defrosting and marinating meat and poultry in sealed containers in the refrigerator or microwave.

Making the food:

When cooking meat or poultry, it is important to ensure that it is fully cooked. The USDA recommends using a meat thermometer to keep food from entering the "Danger Zone."

Bacteria multiply the fastest in the 40- to 140-degree zone in both hot and cold foods.

Before buying a fruit platter for your summer barbecue, remember that pre-cut fruits and vegetables can contain more foodborne pathogens than whole produce. Because pre-cut foods are handled and processed, they are exposed to more germs.

Experts recommend taking the extra time to cut whole fruits and vegetables in order to reduce the chance for infection.

Serving the food:

Food should not remain in the "Danger Zone" for more than two hours.

"If your food is sitting out in temperatures above 90 degrees Fahrenheit at your backyard barbecue, then limit the time the food is at service to one hour," Zeratsky said.

Experts recommend keeping hot foods on chafers and cold foods on ice when serving a meal in the sun.

Storing the food:

Leftovers should be split into small portions and packaged in shallow containers. This allows cold air to evenly and quickly disperse once food is in the refrigerator.

Food left in "Danger Zone" temperatures for more than 2 hours should be thrown away.

"Products containing protein and moisture attract bacteria and are more likely to become unsafe after sitting in the sun," Zeratsky said.

Other foods that you should think twice before saving include mayonnaise-based salads such as macaroni salad and potato salad.

Both Doyle and Zeratsky said that "when in doubt, throw it out."