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How to stop your picnic from spoiling your summer

May 19, 2014

Your summer picnic basket may be a breeding ground for food-borne illnesses. It doesn’t have to be if you take the proper precautions

Whether eating outdoors in your backyard or picnicking at your local park, bacteria can multiply quickly in foods exposed to warm summer temperatures. Each year, 1 in 6 Americans gets sick from food poisoning, 128,000 are hospitalized, and 3,000 die of food-borne illnesses, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).

Importance of washing up

Chef Richard Callahan from Food and Nutrition Services at Baystate Medical Center said you can protect yourself, family and friends by paying attention to some basic food safety tips that begin with washing.

"You’ve heard health care professionals say over and over again how important hand washing is to prevent spreading germs. Food safety, whether outdoors at a picnic or inside your own kitchen, begins with proper hand washing. But, it’s more than just hand washing. You want clean utensils and work surfaces, too," Callahan said.

The Baystate chef noted it is critical to bring soap and water for hand washing, an alcohol rub for use after hand washing. Bring some type of bleach-based cleaner, such as a pop-up bleach wipe and paper towels to clean knives, cutting boards, utensils, platters, picnic tables or other surfaces to minimize the potential for cross-contamination.

"Whether organically- or conventionally-grown, you should also wash all fruits and vegetables prior to preparing or eating them to safeguard against any bugs, chemicals and bacteria that may be present on them," Callahan said.

The right way to pack a cooler

According to the culinary expert, picnickers can also help to keep their food safe from home to the picnic table by learning how to pack a cooler correctly.

He recommends using separate coolers (40º F or below is needed to prevent bacterial growth) with ice or gel packs – one for ready-to-eat foods, one for foods to be cooked on-site, and another just for beverages. A separate cooler for beverages is important so that every time someone opens it for a drink, perishable foods won’t continue to be exposed to the warmer outdoor temperatures.

"Using separate coolers can help avoid cross-contamination of bacteria from raw to ready-to-eat food," Callahan said.

He suggests that raw meat, poultry and seafood should be wrapped securely to prevent leakage so their juices won’t drip onto and contaminate other prepared or cooked foods, as well as raw fruits and vegetables. If separate coolers are not possible, Callahan recommends storing raw, uncooked foods such as hamburger or chicken at the bottom of the cooler and foods ready to eat such as lettuce, tomatoes, and macaroni salad, on top of the raw foods.

"Separate them with an impervious barrier like a plastic cutting board that you will not use later to cut any foods on, so there is no contact between the two," Callahan said.

Don't cross-contaminate

Other tips to avoid cross-contamination include:

  • Don’t use the same cutting board for forming hamburgers and then cutting chicken or vice versa, spreading bacteria from one meat to the other; or for cutting chicken, and then using the same cutting board and knife to cut tomatoes.
  • Purchase hamburger patties already formed with paper between them to prevent raw hamburger coming in contact with other surfaces.
  • Thaw and marinate foods in the refrigerator, not on a counter. Discard marinades that have been in contact with raw products and never reuse a marinade that has been in contact with a raw product.
  • Keep utensils and plates clean. Do not use the same plate or platter for cooked food that previously had raw food on it. Make sure you have separate plates and utensils for handling both raw and cooked foods separately.
  • Do as much food preparation as possible at home where you have running water, sinks for cleaning, and products for cleaning and sanitizing – this will minimize the potential for bacteria to cross-contaminate.

No baking in the sun

Still another major concern is what Callahan referred to as "time and temperature abuse."

"The rule of thumb as we always like to say is to keep cold foods cold and hot foods hot. Don’t let foods, whether cold or hot, sit under the warm sun at temperatures between 40º and 135º F which creates a breeding ground for bacteria to multiply rapidly," he said.

According to Callahan, mayonnaise-based salads such as potato or macaroni and those with meat and other proteins, fruits and vegetables, and proteins such as hot dogs, hamburgers, garden and turkey burgers, tofu, and even sliced tomatoes and green onions, have the potential for quick spoilage. They should be kept on ice until ready to serve and not left out for more than a few minutes after cooking.

Picnic chefs also need to pay special attention that the foods they are cooking reach the proper internal temperature, which is especially important for those most susceptible to food-borne illnesses such as those sick and recently hospitalized, children, elderly, and anyone who is immune suppressed.

Callahan recommends using a digital thermometer to accurately assure you have cooked foods to a minimum temperature and have minimized the potential for foodborne bacteria. Suggested temperatures include 165º F or higher for whole and ground poultry and ground meats, including hamburg, 45º F or higher for steaks and fish, and 160º F for pork.

Symptoms of E-coli

"Above all, and I can’t stress this enough, don’t let any perishable food sit out longer than two hours and no longer than one hour at temperatures in excess of 90º F. Discard it and do not save it as ‘leftovers’ to be eaten. E-coli bacteria is nothing to fool around with or second guess," Callahan said.

According to Dr. Joseph Schmidt, chief, Emergency Services, Baystate Medical Center, while some cases of food poisoning can be deadly, most resolve on their own, usually running their course within 24-48 hours.

Typical symptoms usually include some combination of nausea, abdominal cramping, vomiting, diarrhea, or fever.

"Symptoms can begin within several hours after eating contaminated food, especially if the causative organisms in the food have already formed the toxin that makes people sick, or as much as 24 hours or more later," Dr. Schmidt said.

"Rest and hydration to replace fluids lost to persistent vomiting and diarrhea are the most common treatments for food poisoning, however, hospitalization is sometimes needed for those who are severely dehydrated," he added, noting antibiotics are not normally used to treat most cases of food poisoning.

Dr. Schmidt noted persons experiencing the following signs or symptoms should contact their doctor – fever greater than 101.5 F, blood in diarrhea or vomit, diarrhea for several days, and dehydration accompanied by excessive thirst, weakness, dizziness or lightheadedness, and infrequent urination with little output.