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Summer marks a time of fun in the sun, cookouts and get-togethers with friends and family and an enjoyable escape from everyday life.

With June 20 marking the official start the season, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and "The Grill Sergeants" from the Pentagon Channel's "Grill it Safe" remind everyone of the importance of food safety during their summer fun.

"It's a serious public health issue in the United States -- 48 million people a year get sick from food," said Dr. Elisibeth Hagan, the under secretary for food safety at the USDA. "It's the most vulnerable among us: little kids, older people, pregnant women."

Some of Hagan's duties include the responsibility of food safety policy for the entire commercial meat, poultry and processed egg supply for the United States.

"It's our job to make sure that food is produced as safely as possible before it ever reaches the grocery store," Hagan said.

The heat and humidity that come along with summer are what make the dangers of cooking outdoors increase.

To combat this, the USDA provides four simple steps to ensure food is cooked safely: clean, separate, cook to a proper temperature, and chill.

* Utensils should always be washed before they are used to handle any sort of food produce.

* Raw meats should be separated from cooked meats as well as from the utensils used to handle them.

* Use tools such as meat thermometers to ensure that your meats have been cooked to the proper temperature.

* Use a bowl of ice to chill anything that cannot stay at room temperature or higher for excess periods of time.

To demonstrate these steps, Grill Sergeants Edmund Perez, a staff sergeant, and Sgt. 1st Class Guy Winks fired up the grill.

Winks has been a Grill Sergeant for three years. His experience includes hosting a culinary show at Fort Lee, Va., as well as cooking for the Australian and British armies' chief of staff.

"Because I've been in food service so long, sometimes I don't realize that a lot of the general public don't know as much as I think they do about food safety," Winks said. "Clean, separate, cook and chill -- that's what people should remember."

Perez has been a Grill Sergeant for three years. His experience includes being the enlisted aid for a three-star general at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio.

"Not a lot of people understand the dangers involved when they are grilling," Perez said. "I think the message got across loud and clear."

With the weather changing and the temperature rising, remember the four simple steps to ensure your safety when cooking outdoors this summer.

For more information or for help with grilling, check out the app 'Ask Karen,' available for Blackberry, iPhone and Android phones. Log on to foodsafety.gov or call 888-MPHOTLINE.

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