Burgers, Slaw -- and Salmonella
Planning a picnic? Here's how to make sure your food is safe.
Potato salad, turkey sandwiches, or other foods left out in the sun can all become hotbeds of bacteria. This happens more often during outdoor picnics and gatherings, where it's more difficult to keep cold foods cold and hot foods hot -- temperatures at which bacteria are less of a threat.
So serious is the problem that the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services will soon release food safety tips as part of the recently revised Dietary Guidelines for Americans. "This is an important step in changing the way we think about food safety," says Johanna Dwyer, a Tufts University professor and member of the advisory committee that is drawing up the new guidelines. "The 'Keep Food Safe to Eat' guidelines will focus on ways to avoid trouble in our own kitchens."
And although the guidelines have not yet been officially released, experts agree that these four simple food-handling tips can go a long way toward reducing your risk of food poisoning this summer:
- Lather up: Hand washing is the single most effective way to prevent food-related illness. Always wash your hands before preparing food and after using the bathroom or changing diapers. Antibacterial hand sanitizers are no substitute for soap. Analyses indicate that warm water and soap get rid of about 95% of the bacteria; antibacterial gels and towels eliminate only about 5%.
Wash fresh fruits and vegetables thoroughly in cold water to rinse off any microorganisms that may lurk on them. Sponges can harbor battalions of nasty microbes. Experts recommend microwaving sponges for 15 to 30 seconds every few days to disinfect them (but be careful because they will be very hot).
- Divide and conquer: Cross-contamination during preparation, grilling, and serving food is a prime cause of food-related illness. Don't let raw meat or poultry juices drip onto other foods when you're grocery shopping, or in the refrigerator or ice chest. Don't use the same cutting board, platter, or utensils for raw meat as for other raw or cooked foods. And keep your cooking surfaces clean by sanitizing them with a solution of one tablespoon household bleach in a gallon of water.
- Be cool: Keep cold foods cold. Load perishable groceries in your car, not in the hot trunk, and take them home immediately. Pack cold picnic foods in a chest filled with ice -- full coolers maintain cold temperatures longer than half-empty ones. Use one cooler for perishables and another that will be opened often for beverages.
Get the leftovers back into the cooler as soon as possible. Bacteria can begin to grow to dangerous levels in food that sits out for over two hours at room temperature (one hour if temperatures are 90 degrees or higher). When in doubt, throw it out.
- Turn up the heat: Cook food long enough and at high enough temperatures to kill harmful bacteria. Use a meat thermometer to check internal temperatures whenever possible. Cook whole steaks and roasts to at least 145 degrees and ground meats to 160 degrees. Poultry should reach a temperature of 180 degrees in the thigh and 170 degrees in breast meat. Juices should always run clear, and hamburger and poultry should never be pink. Cook meats from start to finish at your picnic site -- partial cooking ahead of time allows bacteria to survive and multiply.