By: Heather Williams

The kids are out of school and summer has begun.  Summer activities and festivals will soon be in full swing.  While thoughts drift to fun fair rides, amusement parks, petting zoos, and tasty fried foods (from fried cookies to fried alligator and everything in between), food safety should always be running in the background. According to US Food Safety, foodborne illness occurrences increase during the summer months citing that one correlation is that people are cooking and eating outdoors more often, either at backyard barbeques, patios at restaurants, or food being prepared outside at fairs and carnivals.  While the rides and the entertainment are fun aspects of the event, the food is the real draw, which poses some additional foodborne health risks.

Bringing the Indoors Out

When preparing food in a traditional kitchen, the space is generally climate controlled, normal facility equipment is inspected.  The restaurant will have all the appropriate sinks, hand washing stations, and tools to cook and monitor temperatures of cooked food, as well as monitor temperatures of refrigerated temperature controlled ingredients.

While it may sound impossible, vendors at fairs and carnivals can mimic those indoor conditions as closely as possible in their outdoor spaces.  Vendors can even set up temporary three compartment sinks to clean cooking tools.  Most jurisdictions require a three compartment sink so that materials can be properly washed, rinsed, and sanitized before being used again or stored in a clean container.  Temporary food stations should always have a hand wash station.  Food employees should be regularly washing their hands just like they would in a traditional kitchen.

Pre-cooked foods should be stored in either temperature monitored refrigeration storage or temperature monitored heated storage to keep foods out of what is considered the danger zone, which is between 40°F and 140°F.  This temperature is called the danger zone because bacteria grow more quickly in this range, doubling in number in as little as 20 minutes.  Food Safety and Inspection Services (FSIS) indicates food should be discarded when left in this range for 2 hours, and for only 1 hour if the ambient temperature is above 90°F.  Think about how long those hotdogs or fried pickles have been incubating in the summer sun before taking a bite.

Common Foodborne Germs

Common germs found at fairs include: E. coli 0157:H7 and other Shiga toxin E. coli, Salmonella, Cryptosporidia, and Campylobacter.  While everyone is at risk for these harmful foodborne germs the very young, very old, and those with a compromised immune system are at greater risk for more severe complications.

E. coli 0157:H7 and Other Shiga Toxin E. coli

Escherichia coli, abbreviated E. coli is a common foodborne bacterium.  It is not one bacterium, but a category of bacteria with several strains ranging from no symptoms at all to diarrhea or more pathogenic strains that can cause urinary tract infections, respiratory illness, pneumonia, and other illnesses.  Typical E. coli 0157:H7 symptoms include diarrhea.  Symptoms of Shiga Toxin E. coli include: severe stomach cramps, vomiting, diarrhea (often with blood present) and a low grade fever less than 101°F.  Symptoms may begin within 3 to 4 days after exposure with a window of 1 to 10 days and people generally feel better within 5 to 7 days.  A rare illness resulting from Shiga Toxin E. coli is Hemolytic Uremic Syndrome (HUS) and affects around 5-10% of those infected with Shiga Toxin E. coli.  Symptoms usually occur about 7 days after initial symptoms and about the time diarrhea is improving.  Those with HUS should seek medical attention immediately to avoid kidney failure, permanent damage, or death.  Symptoms of HUS include feeling tired, frequent urination, and paleness in cheeks and lower eyelids.


Salmonella is a common foodborne bacteria often found in soil, on animals, and animal feces.  Symptoms of salmonella infection include fever, abdominal cramps, and diarrhea and generally occur 12 to 72 hours after exposure and persist around 4 to 7 days.  Most healthy people can recover without treatment, however the very young, the very old, and those with a compromised immune system are more likely to develop a more severe illness.  In these more at risk individuals, infection may travel from the intestinal tract to the bloodstream to other organs.  Antibiotics and sometimes hospitalization may be required for those individuals.


Cryptosporidia is a parasite often found in soil and in animal feces.  Symptoms of cryptosporidiosis include fever, nausea, vomiting, dehydration, stomach pain/cramps, watery diarrhea, and weight loss.  Symptoms may begin around 2 to 10 days after exposure, with most occurring around 7 days after exposure.  In healthy individuals, illness usually lasts about 1 to 2 weeks.  Pregnant women are more at risk for dehydration and those with weakened immune systems should seek medical attention.


Campylobacter is often found in raw and undercooked poultry, unpasteurized dairy and infected human or animal feces.  Symptoms of campylobacteriosis include diarrhea or bloody diarrhea and healthy infected individuals recover within 2 to 5 days without medical care.  In rare cases campylobacter infection can cause long-term effects such as arthritis, and the more rare (1 in 1,000 cases) Guillain-Barré, which begins several weeks after diarrhea symptoms causing paralysis as it triggers the infected person’s immune system to attack their own nerves.  This illness requires intensive medical care and results in paralysis that can last several weeks.

Before Buying, Take a Look Around

Still want that funnel cake? Before buying, take a moment to look around at the vendors’ food prep area and storage area if possible.  Is the prep area clean?  Is the work surface cluttered with debris or trash?  Is there some kind of refrigeration for raw ingredients and a separate area for pre-cooked ingredients?  It is important to note that raw ingredients and cooked food should be stored in different places to avoid cross contamination.  Is there a hand wash station? If there is not a hand wash station in the vicinity, it is less likely that employees are able to wash their hands as often as they should.  Are the food handlers wearing gloves or using tongs to handle food? You may also be able to identify if the vendor has been inspected.  A certificate should be displayed.  Types of inspections vary from county to county.

What Can I Do to Protect Myself and My Family?

Once you have decided that a particular food vendor is a safe option to eat, be sure to wash hands often.  Always wash hands after using the restroom or changing a diaper.  Wash hands after coming in contact with animals, whether you are just in the animal enclosure or actually touched the animal.  Wash hands after removing soiled clothes and/or shoes.  Always wash hands before eating or drinking or preparing food or drinks.

Enjoy the fairs and festivals of this season.  Have fun and keep food safety in mind, so you are well enough to enjoy another one next weekend.