Picnic Safety: How To Avoid Food-Borne Illness

A little planning and a few simple procedures can ensure that your summer fun doesn’t end in distress.
By Brooke Holmgren

Summer is a time for good food enjoyed outdoors with friends and family, especially on picnics. However, cases of food-borne illness peak in summertime, and a multitude of reasons contribute. Weather provides two of the primary conditions for the spike in summer food poisoning. First of all, the warmer weather encourages rapid bacterial growth. Most harmful bacteria thrive at temperatures above 90 degrees and below 110 degrees. Secondly, bacteria need moisture to survive and in most areas in the United States, summer is the most humid and damp season of the year.

Regardless of the ideal bacteria-growing weather, picnics are a fun and classic summertime activity that can be enjoyed by people of all ages, but a bout of food poisoning is enough to ruin anyone’s day. Luckily, there are small and simple steps to take in order to avoid and eliminate food-borne illnesses.

Picnic Safety
Most cases of food-borne illness are preventable through simple hygiene, cleanly preparation, and proper food storage. Major causes of food-borne illnesses often stem from unwashed hands, cross-contamination between foods (especially uncooked meats and unwashed vegetables), consumption of undercooked meats, and improper food storage. None of these preventative steps are more important than the others; when one precaution is compromised, the risk of food-borne illness increases. These safety steps function together to ensure a decreased risk of food-borne illness.

An obvious precaution for preventing food-borne illness is hand washing, but when preparing or grilling food at a picnic site, water may not be available, therefore a gallon or two of water and ecologically friendly hand soap brought from home can replace running water. Two alternatives to this method are hand sanitizer or wet-wipes. Keep in mind that everyone should wash their hands before preparing and eating food.

Food preparation plays an important role in picnic and food safety. Oftentimes, it is more convenient to prepare food at home than at the picnic site. This is good since conveniences such as a refrigerator will help food keep longer. If possible, prepare food the morning of the picnic, or the night before. Cold food should always be stored at 40 degrees or below, and hot food should always be served at 140 degrees or above. Any foods stored between these temperatures for more than one hour pose a greater risk of food-borne illness. Therefore, thaw frozen meat in a refrigerator at home and keep it in a cooler, below 40 degrees, until grilled at the picnic site. Another option is to thaw meat slowly in a microwave or on a stove top prior to picnicking, but only if it will immediately go on a grill for more thorough cooking. Partially cooking meat and then allowing it to sit (even in temperatures below 40 degrees) fosters the growth of bacteria that is resistant to high temperatures.

Thoroughly cooked meat may be difficult to judge on the grill, as is gauging the temperature. Therefore, a food thermometer is essential to accurately test for doneness. Place the thermometer in the thickest part of the meat, but be careful not to touch any bones, as they may be hotter than the meat. Remember to always wash the thermometer with hot, soapy water before and after every use.

Appropriate Doneness Temperatures for Meat

Poultry (chicken, turkey): 165 degrees

Ground beef, ground pork, and hamburger patties: 160 degrees

Hot dogs, brats, and sausage: 165 degrees

Beef, pork, veal, and lamb cuts: 145 degrees for medium rare, 160 degrees for medium

Fish: 145 degrees, or until the meat separates easily when prodded with a fork

Shrimp, lobster, and crab: cook until meat is pearly and opaque

Clams, oysters, and mussels: cook until shells open


Washing Fruit, Vegetables, and Mixed-Food Dishes
Always wash fruits and vegetables, especially those with edible skin. Although melons, such as watermelon or cantaloupe, do not have an edible rind, bacteria from the outside of the melon is transferred into the melon when cut through with a knife, therefore washing and scrubbing melons is essential for food safety. Soft vegetables such as lettuce, broccoli, and beans do not need to be scrubbed—simply rinse the vegetables under cold water. Soap and detergents are not recommended for use on fruits and vegetables, as the ingredients in the soap may not be recommended for ingestion. Do not wash raw meat before cooking; this can spread harmful bacteria to other utensils or surfaces.

Pasta and potato salads are common culprits for bacteria and viruses. When many foods are combined together and are exposed to air, sunlight, and heat, the risk factors for food-borne illness grow exponentially. Therefore, when preparing pasta and potato salads, wash all ingredients, and prepare the salad cold. Keep

the salad cold in the refrigerator, then in a cooler with ample amounts of ice. At the picnic site, keep the salad’s container on a bowl of ice or in the cooler in between helpings to reduce the risk of bacteria multiplying within the salad.

Transporting Food
When packing for a picnic, consider bringing two coolers, one for raw meat and food that will be accessed only at mealtime, and another for beverages and any other food that may need to be accessed frequently. This cooler will warm up faster than one that is used solely for the purpose of keeping food for the grill. Wrap raw meat in secure bags or containers to prevent juices from coming into contact with other food in the cooler.

Cross-contamination often happens without notice; therefore, pay close attention to the plates or dishes in use before and after cooking. The most common form of cross-contamination occurs when cooked meat is placed on a plate or platter that previously held raw meat. This defeats the purpose of cooking by allowing bacteria present on the raw meat to come back into contact with the cooked meat.

Cross-contamination happens with vegetables, too. Placing anything edible on a surface that has not been cleaned poses a risk for food-borne illness—especially when the surface held raw vegetables, which were cooked and returned to the same surface or container.

To avoid cross-contamination at home, clean kitchen counters before food preparation, wash dishes and utensils that held or were used on raw meat or vegetables, and wash hands. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Food Safety and Inspection Service recommend using two cutting boards—one for meat and another for bread and produce. Merely moving a knife used for raw chicken, then touching raw broccoli with unwashed hands is a cross-contamination disaster. At the picnic site, bring an ample amount of plates—clean, reusable plates from home; plastic; or paper—but make sure to use a new or washed plate while transferring raw and cooked food. This clean-plate policy goes for utensils as well.

While at the picnic site, it is important to keep food covered and away from insects such as flies, which can carry harmful bacteria onto food. A simple clean cloth or paper towel will suffice.

Wrapping Up
After enjoying picnic fare, remember to store all remaining food below 40 degrees. Any food requiring refrigeration that has been sitting out for more than an hour in 90+ degree heat (or two hours for temperatures below 90 degrees) should be disposed of. Foods that do not require refrigeration, such as chips, crackers, cookies, or fruits such as unpeeled bananas, oranges, or apples, are safe to keep.