Originally published in the North Lake Tahoe Bonanza, August 2010. (Link) Few summertime pleasures compare to the primal joy of gathering with friends to cook by the light of the fire. Still, don't let easily avoidable health problems detract from your enjoyment of these wonderful Tahoe barbecues.
Many of the healthiest foods are also those likely to result in an unwelcome bout of food poisoning. The Centers for Disease Control estimates 76 million Americans suffered a food-borne illness last year, with E. coli, norovirus and salmonella causing most episodes. Fortunately most of these can be prevented with a few simple precautions.
It sounds too simple, but wash your hands and make sure the little ones do, too. Cute as they are, one 7-year-old with the sniffles can quickly turn your backyard buffet into a petri dish.
Next, turn your attention to cleaning your fruits and veggies. Most just require a few minutes of running water. Longer can take away their lovely crispness. The U. S. Food and Drug Administration does not recommend the use of soaps, even those marked specifically for produce — they are unnecessary and can leave residues.
Popular picnic fare causing the most frequent illnesses include greens, eggs, tuna, sprouts and berries. Sickness caused by meat and dairy are tracked by the Department of Agriculture and less clearly reported, but be sure to cook all egg and meat products. Tempting as that Caesar salad or French vanilla ice cream may be, it's best to keep raw eggs out of salads and homemade ice creams.
Hepatitis A is less common than other foodborne illnesses, but can result in months of preventable down time. For patients over the age of 50, mortality approaches 2 percent. If you haven't already, consider immunization, particularly if you like to travel. Full protection requires two shots, at least 6 months apart. It just takes a trip over the hill to the Washoe County Health Department in Reno and $43 per shot. These are available on Monday, Wednesday and Friday by appointment at (775) 328-2402.
Much has been made of a study showing a strong association between very well done or charred meat and pancreatic cancer. A single study has little power to show causation, but given the 70 percent higher risk for these types of cancers among those who consumed charred meats, it may be worth avoiding.
Still, you want to make sure any meat is clean and cooked thoroughly. This is especially true for any ground meat or sausage. If you like to use your marinade as a tasty sauce, be careful to set some aside at the beginning. Once you've kept raw meat in it, you need to cook it as thoroughly as the meat to stay safe.
Have fun, be well, and save a marshmallow for me!
— Dr. Rebecca Gelber, is an Incline resident and graduate of The Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. She practices locally at Tahoe Aesthetic and Integrative Medicine, 775-298-1750.