Avoid foodborne illness while picnicking
By Paul Schattenberg, Texas A&M
Sep 2, 2019
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AgriLife Extension expert offers tips on outdoor food safety

KERRVILLE – Foodborne bacteria can multiply quickly in hot temperatures, and a Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service specialist has tips on how to keep a summer picnic safe.

“If you’re serving fresh fruits or vegetables, make sure to rinse them thoroughly before packing them and putting them in a cooler,” said Rebecca Dittmar, family and community health program specialist for food protection management, Kerr County. “Scrub vegetables with a clean brush and dry fruits and vegetables with a clean cloth towel or with paper towels.”

Dittmar said keep all utensils and serving pieces clean when preparing food and always keep cold foods cold by putting them into a cooler with ice or frozen gel packs.

“Cold food should be kept at 40 degrees or lower to help limit bacterial growth,” she said. “If you have meat, poultry or seafood that’s already frozen, you can put it in the cooler to ensure it stays cold longer. And try to keep coolers in the interior of your vehicle instead of the trunk. And take only however much food you plan to eat that day.”

Dittmar said perishable foods such as hot dogs, burgers, poultry, deviled eggs and macaroni or potato salad also should be kept in a well-insulated cooler at 40 degrees or below.

She suggested keeping foods in separate coolers to help avoid cross-contamination. Raw meat, poultry or seafood should be tightly wrapped or stored in a sealed bag or container, and kept in a different cooler than other foods.

“Make sure these items are securely wrapped in such a way that their juices don’t get into and possibly contaminate prepared foods or foods that are to be eaten raw, such as carrot or celery sticks or fresh fruits,” she said.

Dittmar said thawing meat on the counter overnight for the day’s picnicking isn’t safe. Instead it should be thawed in the refrigerator or cooked from its frozen state.

“We also recommend people don’t partially cook meat or poultry ahead of time as that too can be risky,” she said. “Cooking food ahead of time may allow bacteria to survive and multiply to where further cooking might not be able to kill them. The safest way to go is to cook meat and poultry to a safe internal temperature at the picnic site.”

Dittmar said having clean hands is vital to helping prevent foodborne illness, so take a jug of water, soap and paper towels if unsure running water will be available at the picnic destination.

“In a pinch, you can use an antibacterial hand sanitizer or disposable moist towelettes to clean your hands,” she said.  “Be sure to clean your hands before and after touching raw meat, poultry or seafood. And make sure food preparation surfaces, cutting boards, grilling utensils and serving platters are washed and sanitized prior to use.”

Dittmar said unwashed utensils and platters can still contaminate food, even if proper food storage, preparation and cooking standards have been met.

“If you’ve placed raw meat or fish on a platter before grilling, don’t use that same plate to serve the cooked food unless it has first been cleaned with hot, soapy water.”

She said once the coolers are placed where needed, keep them closed as much as possible to keep the contents cooler for a longer period of time.

“Once it is served, cold food should not sit out for any longer than two hours, or just one hour if the temperature is above 90 degrees. If it does, use the maxim ‘When in doubt, throw it out.’”

She said hot food should be kept hot – at or above 140 degrees.

“Wrap cooked food well and place it in an insulated container until it’s ready to be served,” Dittmar said.

She said poultry should be cooked to a 165 degree internal temperature.

“Hot dogs should be cooked to a 165 degree internal temperature as well, and hamburgers to 160 degrees,” she said. “Beef, pork, lamb and veal steaks, chops and roasts should be cooked to at least a 145 degree internal temperature.”

She said cooked foods should be allowed to “rest” for three minutes before serving.

“If you follow these food safety guidelines for a picnic or other outing that involves the transportation and preparation of food, there’s a good chance you won’t be bothered by foodborne illness,” Dittmar said. “A pleasant activity like a picnic should never have to end badly due to poor food safety practices.”