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Prairie Fare: Beware of Invisible Summertime “Bugs”

Julie Garden-Robinson, NDSU Extension Food and Nutrition Specialist Julie Garden-Robinson, NDSU Extension Food and Nutrition Specialist

By Julie Garden-Robinson, Food and Nutrition Specialist

NDSU Extension Service

The other day at work, I had to find some rubbing alcohol for nagging mosquito bites on my arms and ankles. I hadn’t used bug repellent soon enough at an outdoor picnic the previous day.

I was paying the price for not keeping these vicious little bugs away and my welts were growing larger. Fortunately, the alcohol calmed the bites.

When we think about summer pests, we often think of mosquitoes, flies and ants. These bugs certainly are annoyances at outdoor picnics and camping. Even worse: Sometimes bugs can spread disease. However, in the summertime, the “bugs” we can’t see can have worse consequences than the ones we can manage with repellents.

Bacteria, which are invisible to the eye, thrive in the warm, humid days of summer. The number of people who get sick from something they ate increases during the sizzling summer months.

If you contract a foodborne illness, you may experience flulike symptoms, including vomiting and diarrhea. The symptoms can show up within a couple of hours of eating the food, but some types of foodborne illness may not show up for days.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 325,000 people are hospitalized and 5,000 die in the U.S. each year as a result of a foodborne illness.

As we move cooking and eating outdoors during the summer months, we don’t have all the usual controls in place on our decks or patios or at picnic or camping sites. We usually do not have refrigeration, temperature-controlled stoves and hand-washing sinks at our immediate disposal.

Are you doing all you can to reduce your risk of foodborne illness during summer picnics or camping adventures? Temperature control is among the most important things to consider.

Ask yourself these questions. If you answer yes, you are taking steps to keep your food safe during summertime adventures.

  • Do you locate the clean water source at your picnic or camping site? Since water isn’t available at every camping or picnic site, do you bring disposable wipes or an alcohol-based hand sanitizer to clean your hands?
  • Do you use plenty of ice in your cooler to keep food cold? You have several choices for coolers, but some are more durable than others. Foam chests have the advantage of being low in cost and lightweight, but they are not as durable as plastic chests. You can freeze your own blocks of ice in plastic containers or milk cartons at home. Larger blocks of ice stay frozen longer.
  • Do you keep the coolers out of the sun and closed as much as possible? Every time you open a cooler, you are exposing perishable food to temperatures that could promote the growth of bacteria. Have a separate cooler for beverages because the beverage cooler tends to be opened the most frequently. Let the coolers ride in the passenger area instead of the trunk.
  • Do you keep raw meat separate from ready-to-eat foods so the juices do not leak on ready-to-eat foods in your cooler? For example, you could package meat in plastic containers with secure tops. Better yet, keep all your ready-to-eat foods, such as salads or cut fruit, in a separate cooler.
  • Do you bring a food thermometer and a flashlight on picnics and camping trips? You may be cooking late in the evening, which makes it difficult to see the food. Color is never a reliable indicator of doneness. Cook poultry to a minimum internal temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit and hamburgers to at least 160 degrees. If it’s dark, use your flashlight to see the temperature on the gauge.
  • If you are going backpacking, do you bring some lightweight, shelf-stable foods? Try peanut butter in plastic jars; small cans or shelf-stable packets of tuna, ham, chicken or beef; dried meats (such as beef jerky); dried fruits and nuts; or powdered milk or fruit drinks.
  • If you pick up ready-to-eat food, such as chicken or meat sandwiches at a restaurant, do you enjoy your picnic meal within two hours of purchase? If the outdoor temperature is more than 90 degrees, the safe time is within one hour.

Here’s a recipe from Kansas State University’s Kids a Cookin’ website You can enjoy some of summertime’s fresh produce in this recipe.

A Twist on Pasta Salad

1/2 pound package rotini or colored twists, uncooked

1 can (6-ounce) water-packed tuna, drained

1 c. diced cucumbers

1 large tomato, chopped

1/2 c. sliced celery

1/4 c. chopped green pepper

1/4 c. sliced green onions


1 cup bottled low-fat Italian dressing

1/4 c. low-fat salad dressing or mayonnaise

1 Tbsp. prepared mustard

1 tsp. dill weed

1/2 tsp. salt

1/8 tsp. pepper

Prepare rotini according to package directions and drain. In a large bowl, combine rotini, tuna and vegetables. In small bowl, combine dressing ingredients. Add to salad mixture and stir to combine. Cover and chill. Toss gently before serving. Refrigerate leftovers.

Makes six servings. Each serving has 290 calories, 11 grams (g) of fat, 36 g of carbohydrate, 2 g of fiber and 750 milligrams of sodium.

(Julie Garden-Robinson, Ph.D., L.R.D., is a North Dakota State University Extension Service food and nutrition specialist and associate professor in the Department of Health, Nutrition and Exercise Sciences.)

NDSU Agriculture Communication

Source:Julie Garden-Robinson, (701) 231-7187,
Editor:Rich Mattern, (701) 231-6136,
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