OnCentral | Reporting on health and quality of life in South LA

Fairs, festivals contribute to food poisoning spike during summer months

During summer months when outdoors fairs and festivals abound, health officials say food poisoning does too.
During summer months when outdoors fairs and festivals abound, health officials say food poisoning does too.

Fair food doesn't often exercise moderation: If you can fry it, dip it in cheese and put it on a stick, you'll almost certainly find it at a local festival this summer. Fried Oreos, funnel cakes, corn cobs slathered in mayo and medieval-sized turkey legs are par for the course.

But with this flurry of greasy indulgence comes an uptick in cases of food poisoning.

According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), foodborne illness increases in warmer weather because naturally occurring bacteria grows faster in summer months—and humidity only helps them flourish. Warm weather also brings an abundance of backyard BBQs, camping trips, fairs and other outdoor activities, which can lack washing stations, adequate refrigeration and other health and safety precautions. 

Plenty of festival food vendors serve food that's wholesome and safe, but there are some that cut the sanitation corners. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) provides a list of helpful tips to avoid places that are not proactive about bacteria reduction—so next time you're flipping burgers at the park or buying fruit from a street vendor, keep these questions in mind:

- Does the vendor have a clean workstation and a sink for employees to wash their hands? 
- Do employees wear gloves or use tongs when handling food?
- Does the vendor have refrigeration for any raw ingredients or pre-cooked foods?

The CDC also reminds summertime snackers to check if the vendor has been inspected or has a license to sell food. 

In Los Angeles, all county-approved mobile food vendors should have a permit affixed to their cart or truck. According to the L.A. County Department of Public Health, if a vendor doesn't have a permit they may be selling food illegally and could put you at risk of getting sick.

But KPCC reports that in South L.A.—where street vending is commonplace—many can't afford the necessary permit fees. And those who can are often limited in what they can sell.

Today, the L.A. County Board of Supervisors is considering a proposal to crack down on illegal street vendors even further, citing concerns that these vendors are hurting the storefronts they often park near. And while the supervisors debate vendor regulations, you should regulate yourself when you're barbecuing this summer.

The USDA says that temperature is key when it comes to cooking outdoors. When food is heated for a long enough time and at a high enough temperature, most of the harmful bacteria that can cause food poisoning will be killed. So before digging into that chicken kebob from the BBQ, grab a thermometer and make sure it's cooked to 165 degrees (for pork and beef, 160 degrees will do).

That works on the other end of the spectrum, too: Perishable foods like lunch meat and potato salad should be kept cold in an insulated cooler with ice packs. Keep the cooler out of  the sun and separate the food from drinks because the drink cooler will likely be opened often. 

According to the CDC, about 48 million people get some form of food poisoning each year. Roughly 128,000 are hospitalized because of a foodborne disease—and 3,000 die from it.