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."
"It's not mayonnaise itself that's bad," Berry tells WebMD. "It's what people do to mayo that makes it go bad. People dip dirty utensils in it at home and then make dips out of it and take it to a picnic where people double-dip with their veggies. Each time you contaminate it, the mayo can only handle a certain level before the bacteria reaches dangerous levels."
Berry says mayonnaise is fairly acidic, which makes for an inhospitable environment for bacteria, and actually may protect many foods from going bad. She recommends starting off with a fresh jar of mayonnaise and only using clean utensils in it if you plan to make that mayonnaise-rich potato salad or deviled eggs for a picnic. Then pack the foods in plenty of ice to keep it cold, and perhaps even serve deviled eggs on a platter lined with ice.
Do's and Don'ts of Outdoor Food Safety
When deciding what to bring on a picnic or camping trip, keep in mind how you'll transport the food (on your back or in a car) and plan accordingly. Here are some summer food safety tips to keep your food free of dangerous bacteria and reduce the risk of food poisoning:
- Bring plenty of ice to keep perishables cold.
- Wash hands frequently when handling food or bring lots of sanitizing wipes if soap and water aren't available.
- Bring along a meat thermometer to make sure meats and poultry are cooked to a safe internal temperature (hamburgers must be cooked to 160 degrees, chicken breasts to 170 degrees, and dark meat chicken to 180 degrees).
- Put leftovers back into an ice chest immediately after eating.
- Put freshly caught fish on ice immediately after cleaning.
- Don't put food out until people are ready to sit down and eat, and not a moment before.
- Don't leave food out for longer than two hours when the temperature's under 90 degrees or more than an hour when the temperature climbs over 90.
- Don't partially cook foods at home to finish at the site. Either cook foods fully then refrigerate them or cook them completely from the raw state. Partially cooked foods are breeding grounds for bacteria.
- Don't eat any nuts, berries, mushrooms, or other items in the wild that you don't recognize.
Published May 22, 2003.