July is National Picnic Month and many of us are headed outdoors to celebrate this summer ritual. As food heats up in warmer temperatures, bacteria can multiply rapidly.
Foodborne illness is a serious public health threat. The CDC estimates that approximately 1 in 6 Americans (48 million people) suffer from foodborne illness each year, resulting in roughly 128,000 hospitalizations and 3,000 deaths.
“A picnic is a great way to get your family outdoors this summer. Play it safe by packing properly and cooking foods thoroughly,” said Katie Boles, a Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center dietitian. “Don’t ruin family play time by allowing harmful bacteria to grow on your food. It can grow much quicker than you think.”
To protect you, your family and those who show up because they smell good food, Boles offers these tips on keeping your picnic safe and free from unpleasant side effects.
Packing and Preparing Food Safely
- Momma always said to wash up before dinner. Dirty hands, utensils, containers and any work surfaces can contaminate food with harmful bacteria and viruses. Wash hands before handling food and use clean utensils and containers. Not sure if there will be running water available? Pack your own. Bring bottled water, hand sanitizer and a few washcloths to clean not only your kid’s hands but your cooking utensils as well.
- Chilling properly. Some produce, such as cut melons, needs to be kept cold. Bacteria, such as Salmonella and Shigella (common causes of foodborne illness), are often present on the rinds of watermelons and cantaloupes. Therefore, wash all melons thoroughly before cutting. Promptly refrigerate the cut pieces.
- All in due time. Do not prepare foods more than one day before your picnic. Cooking foods in advance gives bacteria more opportunities to grow.
- When in doubt, throw it out. Keep cold food cold and hot food hot. Keeping food at proper temperatures is critical in preventing the growth of foodborne bacteria. Pack a meat thermometer and never let your picnic food remain in the “Danger Zone” - between 40 F and 140 F – for more than 2 hours, or 1 hour if outdoor temperatures are above 90 F. If you plan on getting takeout food such as fried chicken, eat it within an hour of pickup.
- It’s not always good to share. Organize your coolers. Use a separate one for drinks so the cooler containing the food won’t constantly be opened and closed. Pack raw meats, poultry or seafood on the bottom of the cooler chosen for perishables. This will prevent the juices from mingling.
- Once you’ve started, commit. Do not partially grill extra meat or poultry to use later. Cook everything until completely done to assure bacteria are destroyed.
- Don’t cross-contaminate. When taking food off the grill, don’t put the cooked items on the same platter that held the raw meat. Utensils used on raw meat should be washed before touching your cooked meat. And never reuse a marinade that held meat before it was grilled.
- Check for UFO’s. Make sure no foreign objects have landed on your meat. If you clean your grill with a bristle brush, check to make sure that no detached bristles have made their way into the grilled food. While it may not cause a foodborne illness, swallowing a blade of metal could have its own set of potentially dangerous side effects.
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