Think food safety when planning a picnic

July 09, 2003|by LYNN F. LITTLE

There's something special about packing a picnic and heading to the park or hills to enjoy being in the great outdoors. Whether your picnic is an elaborate gourmet affair or a simple packed lunch, the last thing you want to bring home with you is food poisoning. You expect to see ants and other bugs at picnics. While you can see ants and avoid them, it's not possible to see, taste or smell dangerous bacteria that may cause illness if food is mishandled.

When planning a picnic or cookout, make a list of items to pack. Try to plan for just the right amount of food to take. That way you won't have to worry about the storage of leftovers.

Food temperature plays a crucial role in keeping food safe for picnics. Use a well-insulated cooler with an adequate ice source to keep it cold. Buy lots of ice or use frozen gel packs. Place perishable foods in the cooler directly from the refrigerator. Pack ice for beverages in a separate, resealable bag. Don't use the loose ice used to pack your cooler as ice for your drinks. Consider using a separate cooler for beverages and ice, so the cooler with your perishable foods won't be opened and closed constantly.


If you're planning to transport and cook raw meats, poultry or fish, remember the rules to prevent cross-contamination. Place raw meat, poultry and fish in separate plastic bags to keep foods from leaking on raw, ready-to-eat foods like fruit and vegetables. Raw animal products can be a source of unwanted bacteria, so cooking meat kills pathogens that may be present. When ready to grill, remove from the cooler only the amount of meat that will fit on the grill. Bring a meat thermometer along, and check to be sure that hamburger patties have reached an internal temperature of 160 degrees before removing from the grill. For grilled chicken, the recommended internal endpoint temperature is 170 degrees.

When cooking, be vigilant about sources of contamination. Different utensils and serving platters should be used for raw and cooked foods. Make sure that everything that touches food is clean. Also, do not use marinade that touched raw meat as a basting sauce or dip for cooked meat. Instead, reserve a portion of the marinade recipe for a sauce or dip, then use the rest of the recipe to marinate raw meat.

Be sure that all utensils, cutting boards and hands that have come in contact with raw meat are washed thoroughly before using with other foods. It's a good idea to pack duplicate sets of utensils and cutting boards and to bring along an ample supply of disposable towelettes or antibacterial gel for hands. A makeshift wash station can be set up using two plastic tubs, one with soapy water and the other with clean rinse water. A spray bottle filled with soapy water is easy to pack.

Avoid partially cooking meats to be finished later on the grill. Precooked foods should be cooked thoroughly, placed immediately in a refrigerator, brought down to a cool temperature and packed in the cooler.

Remember, unwelcome food pathogens multiply quickly between 40 degrees and 140 degrees.

Keep your cooler in the shade and make sure foods are not sitting out for more than two hours before or after cooking. This time window is shortened to only one hour if it's hotter than 85 degrees outside. Any food that has been left in the cooler after the ice has melted should be thrown away.

Remember that bacteria also can be present on produce. All fruits and vegetables, including melons, berries and leafy greens, should be washed well under running water in your kitchen before packing in a cooler.

Finally, remember the rule, "When in doubt, throw it out."

Lynn F. Little is family and consumer sciences educator for the Maryland Cooperative Extension in Washington County.

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