How Safe is that Egg Salad? A Summer Cookout Q&A

It’s summertime and that means grilling and eating outside. But, how do you make sure you don’t poison everyone with the potato salad?

Marvick Melendez, a registered dietitian at the University of Miami Health System, answers our questions. Not only is she a nutrition expert, she has also inspected kitchens and taught a food safety course.

UMHN: How common is food poisoning?

According to the CDC, only a fraction of food borne illnesses are reported making it difficult to quantify exactly how many people in the United States are being affected by food borne illnesses. However, it is estimated that one in six Americans will get some form of food borne illness this year. And, an estimated 128,000 people will be hospitalized and about 3,000 people will die from these illnesses.

UMHN: What bacteria is the most common cause?

Harmful bacteria are the most common cause of food borne illnesses however viruses, molds, toxins, contaminants, and parasites may also be a cause for food poisoning as well.  According to the CDC there are five top germs, listed by highest risk:

  • Norovirus (58 percent) can be contracted through food such as produce, fresh fruits, shellfish, or from a contaminated person.
  • Salmonella (11 percent) is found in many foods including chicken, eggs, beef, pork, sprouts, fruits, vegetables, and even processed foods like frozen pot pie or peanut butter.
  • Clostridium perfringens (10 percent) may be found in large cut animal roasts, gravies, or pre-cooked foods.
  • Camplyobacter (nine percent) is mainly found in raw or undercooked poultry, unpasteurized milk, and contaminated water.
  • Staphylococcus aureus (staph) is mainly transmitted from poor hand washing, sliced deli meats/sandwiches, pudding, pastries, and unpasteurized milk products.

UMHN: What is the number one food that gives people food poisoning?

According to the CDC, produce was the number one cause of food poising, occurring in nearly half of cases. The culprit – Norovirus, occurring in about 58 percent of cases. The most fatal cases of food borne illnesses however, occurred via meat, poultry, and eggs most often due to Salmonella and Listeria.

UMHN: Is mayonnaise really a common cause?

Bottom line – yes. Mayonnaise contains eggs which could be infected with salmonella. Also, food made with mayonnaise tend to be out too long in what we refer to as the “temperature danger zone” which is between 40°F and 140°F.  Unrefrigerated foods present the perfect conditions for Salmonella to grow. In a matter of hours, a single bacterium can multiple into trillions. This means that potato salad that has been sitting outside for a couple of hours may not be safe to eat. Chef’s always say, “when in doubt, toss it out.”

UMHN: How do you tell if something is unsafe to eat?

Unfortunately, there is no way to know if something is unsafe to eat by looking at it. It also might be a little embarrassing to walk around checking the internal temperature of that hot dog before you eat it.

The cause of food borne illness can be varied. In other words, some foods may become contaminated via its production, such as an infected hen’s eggs, during improper processing such as poor pasteurization, distribution when it is in its temperature danger zone, or unsafe preparation through cross contamination or poor hand washing.

During your summer BBQ, if you notice that food has been sitting out too long it’s best to not consume. It is recommended to refrigerate all foods after 2 hours or within 1 hour if it is hotter than 90 °F.

During outdoor events, keep cold foods cold by placing them in a cooler or insulated container with ice or cold gel. For hot foods, also keep in an insulated container, buffet dish, or crock pot to help keep the food above 140 °F. The key is to avoid eating food that might have been in the temperature danger zone for too long.

UMHN: What can you do to guard against food poisoning?

Our immune system can typically handle a small number of bacteria however eating large amounts of bacteria can place you at increased risk. Also, even a small number of bacteria can be fatal in those that are considered at highest risk such as pregnant women, infants and young children, elderly, or immunocompromised individuals such as HIV, cancer, or organ transplant.

To help prevent food poisoning, the CDC recommends following the clean, separate, cook, and chill guidelines. Clean your hands properly. Wash utensils and equipment using warm soapy water after each food item to prevent cross contamination. Separate raw foods from ready to eat foods. This also includes using separate cutting boards for ready to eat foods such as lettuce and raw foods. Cook at the proper internal temperature. Use a food thermometer for this.

  • 145°F for beef, veal, lamb, and fish
  • 145°F for pork and ham
  • 160°F for ground meats including ground beef, ground pork, ground veal, and ground lamb
  • 160°F for egg dishes
  • 165°F for poultry (chicken, turkey, duck), including ground chicken and ground turkey
  • 165°F for casseroles
  • Microwave food to 165°F or above.

UMHN: What are the rules for storing leftovers?

Refrigerate prepared foods within 2 hours.
Separate large amounts of leftovers into shallow containers to cook quickly.
Don’t over stuff your cooler or refrigerator.
Throw away leftovers if older than 3-4 days or give an off odor.

UMHN: What are the rules for reheating?

Use a food thermometer to make sure you have reach at least 165 °F.
If re-heating in the microwave, make sure even heat distribution by mixing and ensuring dish has reached recommended temperature.

UMHN: How do you know if you have food poisoning?

Symptoms vary according to the germ and may be mild or severe. Some of the most common are upset stomach, cramps, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and/or fever.  Unfortunately, depending the cause, symptoms may occur within hours or days after infection making it difficult to pinpoint the exact cause.

Call your doctor if you have a high fever (over 101.5 °F), blood in stools, frequent vomiting and are unable to keep liquids down, or have diarrhea for more than three days.


Natasha Bright is a contributing writer for the UMiami Health News blog.