Fear of bird flu looms over Memorial Day food safety

As Americans prepare to celebrate Memorial Day, anxiety hangs over some outdoor gatherings amidst fears of avian flu contaminating food supplies. While the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reassure the public that the risk is minimal, recent incidents have sparked worries among consumers.

With reports about H5N1 bird flu affecting dairy cow herds and concerns raised by health officials and journalists, some consumers are expressing apprehension about the safety of beef and poultry products. However, both the USDA and CDC emphasize that there is an extremely low chance of beef and poultry being contaminated with bird flu, with no known instances of such contamination.

The situation has prompted public health officials, particularly in Michigan, to issue warnings against consuming raw or unpasteurized milk, as pasteurization remains an effective measure in killing the virus. Dr. Natasha Bagdasarian, Michigan’s Chief Medical Executive, underscores the importance of ensuring the safety of dairy products, especially for vulnerable populations like children and the elderly.

USDA Memorial Day food safety tips

The USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service has presented tips to mitigate the risk of foodborne illnesses during outdoor festivities. With warmer temperatures creating favorable conditions for bacteria growth, proper food handling becomes essential for protecting your family and friends from foodborne illness.

“The bacteria that cause foodborne illness love the summertime as much as we do because they thrive and multiply quickly in warmer temperatures. This causes illnesses to spike during the summer,” said Under Secretary for Food Safety Dr. Emilio Esteban. “As we all spend more time outside, it is important to remember these food safety steps to keep your friends and family safe.”

Wash hands

The first step to serving summer foods safely is to start with clean hands. If running water is available, wet your hands, lather with soap, scrub for 20 seconds, rinse, and dry. If no running water is available, use hand sanitizer or moist towelettes that contain at least 60 percent alcohol.

Pack perishables safely

When traveling with perishable food to places like the pool, beach, summer camp, hiking, or a cookout, always use cold sources in coolers or insulated containers to keep food at a safe cold temperature below 40 F. Cold source options include ice, frozen gel packs, and frozen beverages (that do not require refrigeration for safety) such as water bottles, iced tea, and juices like apple and grape. Additional cooler tips:

  • Pack beverages in one cooler and perishable food in another cooler.
  • The beverage cooler may be opened frequently, causing the temperature inside the cooler to fluctuate and become unsafe for perishable foods.
  • Keep coolers and insulated bags out of the sun. Once outside, place them in the shade.
  • Full coolers or insulated bags will keep your perishable foods cold and safe for longer than half-full ones.
  • Place an appliance thermometer (traditionally used for the refrigerator or freezer) in the cooler so you can check to be sure the food stays at 40 F or below.

Keep out of the danger zone

The Danger Zone is the temperature range where bacteria multiply rapidly between 40 and 140 F. Perishable foods, including meat and poultry, sliced fruits and vegetables, and cooked side dishes, should avoid the Danger Zone or be kept hot or cold to maintain food safety.

  • Cold foods must be placed at 40 F or below in the refrigerator, coolers, insulated containers, or under ice.
  • Hot foods must be kept over 140 F by placing them on the grill, in heated chafing dishes, in a slow cooker, or in warming trays.

Check the temperatures of cold and hot items frequently.

Follow the 2-hour rule
Foods kept hot or cold out of the Danger Zone or do not sit out for more than two hours (one hour if over 90 F) are safe to keep. Any other items would be considered unsafe and need to be discarded. When in doubt, throw it out!

If you have food safety questions
Call the USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline at 1-888-MPHotline (1-888-674-6854), email [email protected] or chat live at 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Eastern Time, Monday through Friday.

As the nation honors its fallen heroes this Memorial Day, ensuring food safety during gatherings underscores a commitment to protecting the health and well-being of all who partake in the holiday festivities.

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