Pass the Potato Salad, Hold the Germs

ABC News Medical Unit's Dr. Ana Nobis reports:

Sharing a meal with family or friends can be such a pleasure but not when uninvited germs, viruses and parasites crash the party.

About one in six Americans get sick each year from eating contaminated food, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Dr. Richard Besser, chief health and medical correspondent for ABC News, hosted a Twitter chat on food safety to ensure consumers enjoy their picnics and barbecues this summer without getting an upset stomach, or worse.

Besser was joined by the Food Safety and Inspection Service, Stop Foodborne Illness, Center for Science in the Public Interest and other top experts from some of the most respected food-safety groups in the country.

Click here for the full chat transcript. Read on for the highlights.

Which foods cause the most food-borne illness?

Produce is the No. 1 one carrier of sickening pathogens, with leafy greens and sprouts leading the way. But getting sick from tainted meat, fish and poultry is often far more serious. Illness from unpasteurized milk or juice is no joke either.

There are five nasties in the food supply that do most of the damage: Norovirus, Salmonella, Clostridium, Campylobacter and Staphylococci. But the culprit usually remains unidentified in a typical food-poisoning outbreak.

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Who is at greatest risk for getting sick?

Young children, the elderly, anyone with weakened immune system and pregnant women are at greatest risk for food-borne illness. Pregnant women need to be especially careful about consuming deli meats and soft cheeses, which might harbor listeria, a bacterium that can cause miscarriage or meningitis.

Expectant moms should also avoid eating refrigerated smoked fish, raw seafood or shellfish, or large predatory fish that might contain high levels of mercury. They can safely eat up to 12 ounces of low-mercury seafood per week including shrimp, crab, salmon, pollock, catfish, cod, tilapia and canned light tuna.

What's the best way to keep food safe?

The advocacy group Stop Foodborne Illness recommends washing your hands and all surfaces with warm soapy water for at least 20 seconds. Follow the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service guidelines by cooking whole cuts of meat to an internal temperature of 145 degrees followed by three minutes rest.

Cook burgers to an internal temperature of 160 degrees; poultry and all leftovers to 165 degrees. Before cooking, chill out. As in refrigerate or cool your food to 40 degrees or below until right before cooking. Never thaw food on the counter or in the open air.

What can I do to keep my cookouts safe?

When grilling or enjoying a picnic, practice the same hygiene you would if you were dining indoors. That means washing your hands and all surfaces. Get a meat thermometer and follow cooking temperature guidelines.

Ensure your food stays well chilled by keeping your cooler full. A packed cooler keeps food cold longer than a partially filled one. Consider freezing sandwiches until it's time to eat them. And remember: Warm foods will chill faster if they are divided into several clean, shallow containers.

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