Whether grilling, camping, having a picnic, or at a family reunion, summertime brings many opportunities for food-borne illness to occur. Food-borne illnesses affect 48 million people each year, and cause an estimated 3,000 deaths annually in the United States. More than 250 different food-borne diseases have been described. These illnesses are a common, costly and preventable public health challenge.

Most food-borne illnesses can be prevented with proper cooking or processing to destroy harmful pathogens. It is always important that we keep cold food cold and hot food hot. When foods set out for a long period of time, they begin to approach “The Danger Zone,” which is when bacteria multiply most rapidly. The Danger Zone is any temperature between 41˚F and 140˚F.

You have the power to fight food-borne illness and keep food safe by following these four simple steps: Clean, Separate, Cook and Chill.

Make sure you keep your cooking area clean and wash hands and surfaces often. Always wash your hands with warm water and soap for 10-15 seconds before and after handling food. If you're eating away from home, find out if there's a source of clean water. If not, bring water for preparation and cleaning. Pack clean cloths and moist towelettes for cleaning surfaces and hands.

Separate your cooked and ready to eat foods from raw food in order to avoid cross contamination. Harmful bacteria present in raw meat and their juices can be easily spread to other foods by juices dripping from packages, hands, or utensils. Never use the same platter and utensils for raw and cooked meat. Be sure there are plenty of clean utensils and platters. Also, make sure to keep raw meat securely wrapped. This keeps their juices from contaminating prepared/cooked foods or foods that will be eaten raw, such as fruits and vegetables.

Use a meat thermometer to make sure your foods are cooked to the proper temperature. Be sure to clean the thermometer between uses. Cooking foods to the correct internal temperature can destroy harmful bacteria. Meat cooked on a grill often browns very fast on the outside and it can be especially tricky to tell the color of a food if you are cooking in a wooded area in the evening, which is why color is not a reliable indicator of doneness.

After cooking meat and poultry on the grill, keep it hot until served — at 140°F or warmer. When reheating fully cooked meats like hot dogs, grill to 165°F or until steaming hot. These foods should not sit out for more than two hours, or one hour in temperatures above 90° F. If food is left out longer, throw it away to be safe.

Chill foods that are not being eaten and leftovers to avoid bacteria growth. Use an insulated cooler with sufficient ice or ice packs to keep the food at 41°F or below until serving time. Pack food straight from the refrigerator into the cooler right before leaving home. Keep meat refrigerated until ready to use and only take out the meat that will immediately be placed on the grill. Similar to hot foods, it should not sit out for longer than one-two hours depending on the temperature outside.

When using a cooler, keep it out of the direct sun by placing it in the shade or shelter and insulate it with a blanket, tarp, or poncho. Avoid opening the lid too often, which lets cold air out and warm air in. Pack beverages in one cooler and perishables in a separate cooler. If the cooler is only partially filled, pack the remaining space with more ice.

If you have a suspected case of food-borne illness, there are some important steps to follow. First, preserve the evidence. If a portion of the suspected food is still available, wrap it and freeze it. Be sure to include the food type, date, time consumed and onset of symptoms on the package. Secondly, seek treatment as necessary. Lastly contact your local health department; this is especially important if the food was consumed at a large gathering, restaurant or from another food service establishment. For more information on food-borne illness prevention and outbreaks, visit http://www.fsis.usda.gov/ or contact the Independence Health Department at 816-325-7185.

• Information provided by http://www.fsis.usda.gov/FACTSheets/Foodborne_Illness_What_Consumers_Need_to_Know/index.asp  and www.fightbac.org

Larry D. Jones, MPH, is the director of the Independence Health Department.