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Food Safety in the Great Outdoors

Don't let food poisoning spoil your next outing. Following a few simple rules will keep your outdoor meal memorable for the right reasons.
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WebMD Feature

Nothing's better than a great meal savored in the great outdoors, but nothing's worse than spoiling a picnic or camping trip with a bad case of food poisoning. By following a few simple food safety tips you can enjoy the fruits of the season without paying the price with an upset stomach, nausea, or diarrhea.

Experts say food poisoning peaks in the summer months for two reasons. The first reason is natural, because bacteria grow fastest in warm, humid weather. And the second is due to how people eat during warm weather -- outside at picnics, barbeques, and camping trips and away from the safer confines of the kitchen and home.

Most people rarely get sick from contaminated foods because their immune systems are strong enough to protect them. But when harmful bacteria multiply beyond safe limits due to unsafe food handling or lack of refrigeration, that's when food poisoning strikes. When the immune system is impaired by sickness, age, or other factors, food poisoning is also more likely.

Keep it Hot or Cold

The number one rule of summer food safety to remember is "what's hot stays hot, what's cold stays cold." Bacteria do not grow as quickly at temperatures below 40 degrees Fahrenheit or above 140 degrees Fahrenheit. The temperature range in between is known as the danger zone in which bacteria can reach hazardous levels within two hours.

Since hauling an oven on your back to your next outing isn't practical, experts say it's a lot easier to keep things cold away from home in a cooler or ice chest rather than hot. Unless you have a heat source, it's virtually impossible to keep foods over 140 degrees for extended periods of time.

If you want to bring cooked items to eat outside, such as meats and poultry, you should cook them first at home, pack them in ice, and then reheat them on the grill or camping stove at your destination.

Keep it Clean

The second rule of thumb to remember for outdoor food safety is to "keep it clean." That applies to food and the person handling it. Keep raw meat juices from leaking onto other foods by double-wrapping the meat and placing it near the bottom of the cooler surrounded by plenty of ice.

Find out in advance if there will be running water or soap available at your dining destination. If not, bring soap and water with you or a good supply of disposable wipes. Wash your hands before handling foods and keep serving platters and utensils clean and free of cross-contamination from other foods.

The Mayonnaise Myth

Perhaps no other food is quite as infamous at picnics for triggering food poisoning at a picnic than mayonnaise. But according to Bessie Berry, manager of the USDA's meat and poultry hotline, "Mayo's gotten a bad rap."

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