Summer Food Safety Tips for Patients with Solid Organ TransplantsBy Austin Michalski, RD, LDN

With sunny weather and warm temperatures come picnics, barbecues and cookouts. In addition to enjoying the company of our friends, family and fun outdoor activities, most of us are looking forward to many of the delicious foods that summer brings. Whether it is a hot dog, a hamburger or your grandmother’s famous potato salad, there are many delicious foods options once the warm air of summer sets in. In general, most of us can enjoy these foods without any problems; however, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) tells us that foodborne illness is more prevalent in the summer months. While anyone is potentially at risk for getting a foodborne illness or “food poisoning,” immunosuppressed transplant patients can be at an increased risk for getting sick from food. To ensure a healthy and happy summer, there are some important steps our transplant families can take to prevent getting a foodborne illness.

The USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service focuses on four steps to eating and serving summer foods safely:

  • clean
  • separate
  • cook
  • chill

We encourage our patients and families to follow these steps at home with a specific emphasis on the first six months after transplant, but ultimately, food safety is a life-long goal. Applying these principles to an outdoor setting can be challenging, but very important, since our standard kitchen conveniences and appliances are not available.

Clean: In a cookout or barbecue setting, it’s important to make sure we are keeping our hands clean with hot, soapy water. If this is not available an antibacterial hand sanitizer or antibacterial disposable wash cloth or wipe will do. It is also important to keep the surfaces that we eat or prepare food on clean.

Separate: Before we fire up those grills this summer, it is important that we have a good system in place to keep raw foods and cooked foods separate—especially meats, fish and seafood. Cross-contamination can be a major source for foodborne illness, so we want to ensure that raw meat, fish and seafood are packaged and wrapped well in the cooler. Consider having a separate cooler for these foods, or place them in sealed plastic bags and put them in the bottom of the cooler, so if any leakage occurs it is less likely to come in contact with foods that will not be cooked.

Cook: It can take some talent to cook the perfect hamburger or steak on the grill, and everyone has their own techniques, but when it comes to cooking food safely, it all comes down to temperature. Food is “safely” cooked when it has reached an internal temperature hot enough to kill all harmful bacteria that could potentially cause a foodborne illness. The best option is to have a food thermometer on hand when cooking out in the summer and to bring one along to barbecues and picnics.Chill: Just as important as bringing foods to the proper temperature when cooking, chilling foods to the right temperature during storage is vital to serving food safely. Foods that are not stored or held at the right temperature at summer cookouts and barbecues can be a major source of foodborne illness. Make sure cold foods and perishables are stored in insulated coolers with plenty of ice or ice packs. Keep these coolers out of the sun and monitor the ice, replenishing as needed. Another good tip is to have a separate cooler for cold canned or bottled beverages, as this will likely be opened more frequently and let warm air in. If prepared foods like tossed salads, pasta or potato salad are going to be out of refrigeration for serving, it might be a good idea to have them on ice, or serve them as needed and place back on ice in the cooler when not being served. The maximum amount of time food should be left out of refrigeration is two hours, and if it is a hot day with temperatures at 90 degrees or higher, food shouldn’t be out for more than one hour.

If we remember to think about the four major steps to preventing foodborne illness—clean, separate, cook and chill—we can be more confident that we are eating and serving safe foods in the summertime. These steps and concepts also apply to how we transport foods on car trips and camping trips during the summer. With these four steps and an understanding of the risks, we hope that all our transplant patients and families can have a healthy and enjoyable summer.

Check out some of these great fact sheets and podcasts about food safety for summertime and vacations: