NDSU Extension Service - Ramsey County


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Take Safety on Your Picnic

Take Safety on Your Picnic

Outdoor bar-b-ques, picnics, campouts – outdoor activities and food go hand in hand during North Dakota’s summer season. Picnic/bar-b-que foods can be special but they can also be especially food-safety hazardous. Picnicking is a special part of many summertime activities. Reasons why picnic foods can be hazardous include:

-   Food receives a lot of handling. Picnic foods -- such as potato or macaroni salads, sandwich fillings, hamburger patties and cut watermelon -- often receive a lot of handling during preparation. Handling increases the risk of contamination with harmful bacteria.

-   Food may not be cooled rapidly after cooking. Some common picnic foods require precooking and are prepared in large quantities. Cooked foods must be rapidly cooled by putting in shallow pans and refrigerating immediately after cooking so harmful bacteria does not grow. Warm temperatures promote bacterial growth.

- The needed equipment to keep hot food hot and cold food cold is often not used and food sits out for long periods of time. As food heats up in summer temperatures, bacteria multiply rapidly. The longer food is at warm temperatures, the more likely foodborne illness will result.

Begin keeping picnic food safe by washing hands before, during and after handling food and use clean utensils and containers.  Use separate cutting boards for food that will be cooked (meat, poultry) and foods that will not be cooked (salads, fruit).

Do not prepare foods more than one day before your picnic unless it is to be frozen. Cooking foods in advance allows for more opportunities for bacteria to grow. Cooked foods need to be rapidly cooled in shallow pans. Spread the food out in as many pans as is needed so that food is no more than two inches deep. One study linked over 67% of reported cases of foodborne illness to improper cooling..           Mayonnaise-based foods need to be kept cold. Mayonnaise alone is too acidic for bacteria to grow in it. However, when mayonnaise is mixed with other foods, (particularly those that have been handled a lot and/or are protein foods), bacteria can grow if this mixture is kept too warm.

Cut melons are another food that needs to be kept cold.  Bacteria, such as Salmonella and Shigella (common causes of foodborne illness), are often present on the rind of melons and can be “pushed” onto the fruit when a knife cuts through the rind and onto the fruit interior.  Therefore, wash melons thoroughly before cutting then promptly refrigerate cut pieces. Melons, unlike most other fruits, are not acidic and so can support the growth of harmful bacteria.

When packing, keep cold food cold. Keep cold food at 40F or colder to prevent bacterial growth. To do so, pack cold foods in a sturdy, insulated cooler with plenty of ice or frozen gel packs. Freeze your own blocks of ice in milk cartons or plastic containers for use in the cooler. Put cold foods in water-proof containers or wrap in plastic wrap or aluminum foil and completely immerse in the ice inside the cooler. If using frozen gel packs or containers of homemade ice, place them between packages of food.  Consider packing beverages in one cooler and perishable food in another. That way, as picnickers open and reopen the beverage cooler to replenish their drinks, the perishable foods won’t be exposed to warm outdoor air temperatures.

The trunk of your car can reach temperatures of 150F so it is best to transport coolers in the passenger area of the car. When you arrive at the picnic site, put a blanket over the cooler and place it in the shade to maintain cold temperatures. Keep the cooler closed until ready to use the contents.

Keep hot foods at 140F or hotter to prevent the growth of harmful bacteria. Take-out foods or foods cooked just before being transported to the picnic can be carried hot. Wrap hot food in towels, then newspaper, and place inside a box or heavy paper bag. Keep these foods warm on a lit grill or use within one hour.       If you cannot keep cold food cold and hot food hot, take foods that do not need refrigeration:  peanut butter sandwiches,  dried fruit, nuts, unpeeled fresh fruit -- apples, oranges, bananas,  jelly sandwiches,  unopened cans of food, meat, fish or fruit, cookies and cakes.

Keep hot foods hot during serving the meal. Cooked foods are just as perishable as raw foods, so once grilled foods are cooked do not let them sit out for more than one hour.  Plan food preparation so food is eaten shortly after it is cooked.

Because most picnic leftovers have been sitting out for more than one hour in temperatures above 90 degrees and have had many people handling them, the food-safe choice is to dispose of them.  The more time that food has been sitting at unsafe temperature, the more likely harmful bacteria has grown.


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