Enjoying picnics and barbecues with family and friends is a highlight of summer. But unsanitary conditions can spoil the fun. One in six Americans contracts a foodborne illness each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Warmer summer weather increases your chances of food poisoning, also known as foodborne illness. The ideal temperature outdoors for bacterial growth on food is between 90° and 110° F (32° to 43° C), so summer’s warm weather and humidity provide the perfect environment.
Many clients aren’t aware of best practices for food safety, but RDs can help them enjoy their favorite foods safely when eating outside during the remainder of summer. RDs already may be familiar with the USDA’s food safety mantra “clean, separate, cook, and chill.” These best practices against food poisoning also apply to outdoor eating.
Wherever clients are preparing the food to be eaten outside, advise them to wash their hands often and keep prep surfaces clean throughout the day. They should bring soap and a container filled with water to wash cooking and eating utensils or use moist towelettes if a water source is unavailable. Cooked food shouldn’t be placed on a platter, plate, or cutting board that previously had something raw on it unless the surface was washed in hot, soapy water and rinsed thoroughly. Clients also should remember to wash their hands after playing games like basketball, volley ball, cornhole, or with pets.
Instruct clients to wash and dry all fruits and vegetables before leaving for their outdoor meal. Even if they plan to peel the produce, it should still be washed, as bacteria can make their way inside the fruit or vegetable’s flesh while cutting and/or peeling. Larger fruits such as watermelon and pineapple should be washed in a strainer to enable total and thorough cleaning.
Bacteria can spread long before a picnic or barbecue begins. Recommend that clients keep raw poultry, meat, and seafood in sealed containers or bags to prevent juices from dripping onto other foods in the refrigerator. In addition, the USDA recommends that eggs be stored in their original carton and on a shelf in the main compartment of the refrigerator rather than on the door so they stay fresh and at an adequate temperature.
Advise clients to keep beverages, produce, and raw meats in separate clean coolers; separating foods decreases the chance of cross-contamination of foodborne bacteria. Utensils used for cooking or serving should be designated for raw and cooked foods and kept separate as well.
Bacteria that cause food poisoning multiply fastest in the “danger zone” temperature range of 40° to 140° F. There’s no better way to tell if a food is fully cooked than with a food thermometer. Instruct clients to measure the temperature in the thickest part of the food, avoiding bone and fat, and to clean the thermometer after each use. Food should be placed in a slow cooker or chafing dish to ensure the temperature stays at 140° F or above.
Ground meat dishes such as hamburgers should be grilled to 160° F. If clients don’t have a food thermometer, they should make sure the hamburger is brown inside without any pink. Chicken should be grilled to at least 165° F, and whole red meats such as steaks, roasts, and chops should be cooked to 145° F. These temperatures apply to all cooking methods. It’s essential that meats be cooked entirely at the outdoor picnic site and not partially cooked beforehand, as partial cooking can cause bacteria to grow to the point where it can’t be destroyed by further cooking.
Finally, tell clients to fill up their coolers with cold food and ice. The fuller the cooler, the colder the food. Coolers should be kept in the coolest part of the car when transporting, and in the shade or under an umbrella away from the sun’s rays at the outdoor site. Remind clients to try to limit the number of times they open and close coolers containing perishable foods and to replenish ice as soon as it starts to melt to keep the cooler at the ideal temperature.
Potentially harmful bacteria can grow on food within two hours unless the food is properly refrigerated. Cold food should be below 40° F. If the outside temperature is 90° F or above, clients have only one hour before bacteria starts to grow on the food. If perishable food has been sitting out for two hours or longer, clients should play it safe and toss it. In addition, advise clients to use lids and citronella candles to keep foods bug-free.
The USDA’s “Summer Toolkit to Prevent Foodborne Illness” offers a variety of resources, including videos and colorful infographics, that RDs can share with clients to make outdoor food safety messages fun and easy to remember.
For a simple, healthful treat clients can easily prepare and take with them to an outdoor adventure, direct them to this Strawberry Salad Pita Pizza.
— Helen Agresti, RD, has a private practice in Erie, Pennsylvania. She specializes in weight loss, sports nutrition, eating disorders, digestive diseases, food sensitives, and childhood obesity. She’s also employed by the Pennsylvania Bureau of Autism and counsels children and adults with Asperger’s. Helen enjoys sharing her passion for fitness, cooking, and traveling with her husband and five children.