Help prevent summer food safety mistakes

July 28, 2010|By LYNN LITTLE

Hot summer days, a picnic, an outdoor gathering of family and friends, a ballgame all can be prime times for food safety mistakes that put families and friends at risk of food borne illness.

Outdoor picnics and other activities where you serve food, especially in warm weather, can present opportunities for food borne bacteria to thrive. Follow these simple steps to avoid food safety mistakes and protect your family and friends:

Prepare your meals at home, remembering to wash your hands with warm soapy water first. Be sure to also wash fresh fruits and vegetables. Failure to adequately wash fresh fruits and vegetables also can increase summer food safety risks.

Pack your cooler just before you leave home. If you pack meat and poultry while still frozen it will stay colder longer. Pack only the amount of food you think you will use and consider taking some non-perishable foods and snacks that don't need to be kept cold.


Pack foods in your cooler in reverse order, packing foods first that you are likely to use last. This helps you avoid unpacking and repacking the cooler throughout the day. When packing, keep cold foods cold by placing them in a cooler of ice or frozen gel packs. Designate one cooler for beverages, which is often opened and re-opened to replenish drinks, and one for perishable foods. By doing this, perishable foods are not exposed to warmer temperatures as often.

When traveling, transport the cooler in the air-conditioned passenger section of your car, rather than in the hot trunk. Keep the cooler out of direct sunlight. When outdoors keep the cooler covered with a blanket or tarp.

Potato salad and other summer salads, such as coleslaw or pasta salad with meat, should be covered and refrigerated before being transported in an ice chest or insulated cooler to a picnic. Mayonnaise is sometimes blamed for a food safety mishap, but the real culprit in salad mixtures could be any of the other ingredients, such as protein-based foods. Mayonnaise is made with acid (vinegar or lemon juice) so it tends to inhibit bacterial growth.

If using a marinade, marinate foods in the refrigerator before you leave home, never on the kitchen counter or outdoors. Also, do not re-use marinade as a sauce on cooked food unless you reserved a portion separately before adding the raw meat or you boil the used marinade before applying it to your cooked food.

Never cross-contaminate. Be sure to keep raw meat, poultry and seafood securely wrapped. When grilling, never re-use platters or utensils that held raw meat to hold cooked food. To avoid cross contamination keep ice for beverages in a separate bag in the cooler. Do not use the ice used to keep the beverages cold.

Keep hot foods hot by wrapping the food well and placing it in an insulated container until ready to serve. Cover and return food to coolers immediately after eating. The general food safety recommendation is to discard perishable foods allowed to stand at room temperature for two hours. Hot and cold perishable food should not sit out for longer than two hours, or one hour if the temperature is above 90 degrees. When in doubt, throw it out.

Prepare the picnic site by making sure your hands and surfaces are clean. If running water is not available, use a water jug, that you have brought along, soap and paper towels. You may also use moist, disposable towelettes. Place the picnic or serving table out of the sun, and wait to remove foods from the grill or cooler until you are ready to eat.

Wash your hands before and after handling food. When soap and water are unavailable for hand washing, brush visible dust and dirt from hands and use a hand sanitizer. A wet washcloth in a re-sealable plastic bag and a bar of soap can substitute at a ball field or other site where water is unavailable.

Summer picnic foods can be troublesome if mishandled. One tasty picnic perennial, s'mores, is likely to be risk-free.

The picnic and barbecue season offers a great time with family and friends. With the proper planning, you can be sure your loved ones are kept safe from harmful bacteria.

For more food safety information and answers to your food safety questions you can call University of Maryland Extension - Washington County office at 301-791-1504. You can also visit, or go to and click on food safety education; call the Meat and Poultry Hotline 888-674-6854 or email your question to

Lynn Little is a family and consumer sciences educator with University of Maryland Extension in Washington County.

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