Mind and Body: Handling food safely when eating outdoors

By Carlene Whitt

Clark County Health Department

Picnic and barbecue season offers plenty of opportunities for outdoor fun with family and friends. But these warm weather events also present opportunities for food-borne bacteria to thrive.

As food heats up in summer temperatures, bacteria multiply rapidly.

To protect yourself, your family and friends from food-borne illness during warm-weather months, the FDA stresses safe food handling when eating outdoors is critical.

Read on for simple food safety guidelines for transporting your food to the picnic site, and preparing and serving it safely once you have arrived.

Pack and transport  food safely

Keep your food safe from the refrigerator/freezer — all the way to the picnic table.

— Keep cold food cold. Place cold food in a cooler with ice or frozen gel packs. Cold food should be stored at 40 degrees F or below to prevent bacterial growth. Meat, poultry and seafood may be packed while still frozen so they stay colder longer.

— Organize cooler contents. Consider packing beverages in one cooler and perishable food in another. That way, as picnickers open and reopen the beverage cooler to replenish their drinks, the perishable foods won’t be exposed to warm outdoor air.

— Keep coolers closed. Once at the picnic site, limit the number of times the cooler is opened as much as you can. This helps to keep the contents cold longer.

— Don’t cross-contaminate. Be sure to keep raw meat, poultry and seafood securely wrapped. This keeps their juices from contaminating prepared/cooked foods or foods that will be eaten raw, such as fruits and vegetables.

— Clean your produce. Rinse fresh fruits and vegetables under running tap water before packing them in the cooler — including those with skins and rinds that are not eaten. Rub firm-skinned fruits and vegetables under running tap water or scrub with a clean vegetable brush while rinsing with running tap water. Dry fruits and vegetables with a clean cloth towel or paper towel. Packaged fruits and vegetables that are labeled “ready-to-eat,” “washed,” or “triple washed,” need not be washed.

Quick tips for picnic site preparation

Food safety begins with proper hand cleaning – including in outdoor settings. Before you begin setting out your picnic feast, make sure hands and surfaces are clean.

— Outdoor hand cleaning is important. If you don’t have access to running water, use a water jug, some soap and paper towels. Or, consider using moist towelettes for cleaning your hands.

— Take care to keep all utensils and platters clean when preparing food.

Follow safe grilling tips

Grilling and picnicking often go hand-in-hand. And just as with cooking indoors, there are important guidelines that should be followed to ensure grilled food reaches the table safely.

— Marinate safely. Marinate foods in the refrigerator — never on the kitchen counter or outdoors. In addition, if you plan to use some of the marinade as a sauce on the cooked food, reserve a portion separately before adding the raw meat, poultry or seafood. Don’t reuse marinade.

— Cook food thoroughly. When it is time to cook the food, have your food thermometer ready. Always use it to be sure your food is cooked thoroughly.

— Keep “ready” food hot. Grilled food can be kept hot until served by moving it to the side of the grill rack, just away from the coals. This keeps it hot but prevents overcooking.

— Don’t reuse platters or utensils. Using the same platter or utensils that previously held raw meat, poultry or seafood allows bacteria from the raw food’s juices to spread to the cooked food. Instead, have a clean platter and utensils ready at grill-side to serve your food.

— Check for foreign objects in food. If you clean your grill using a bristle brush, check to make sure no detached bristles have made their way into grilled food.

Serving picnic food

Keeping food at proper temperatures — indoor and out — critical in preventing the growth of food-borne bacteria. The key is to never let your picnic food remain in the “Danger Zone’ — between 40 degrees F and 140 degrees F — for more than two hours, or one hour if outdoor temperatures are above 90 degrees F.

Cold perishable food should be kept in the cooler at 40 degrees F or below until serving time. Once you have served it, it should not sit out for longer than two hours, or one hour if the outdoor temperature is above 90 degrees F. If it does, discard it.

Foods like chicken salad and desserts in individual serving dishes can be placed directly on ice. Drain off water as ice melts and replace ice frequently.

Hot food should be kept hot, at or above 140 degrees F. Wrap it well and place it in an insulated container until serving. Just as with cold food, these foods should not sit out for more than two hours, or one hour in temperatures above 90 degrees F. If food is left out longer, throw it away to be safe.

Clark County Health Department provides programs for the entire family, including WIC, HANDS, family planning, well-child care/immunizations and home health care. For more information on all of our services, call 744-4482 or visit www.clarkhealthdept.org.