Picnics are one of the simple outdoor pleasures people enjoy during summer, and Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service experts have some advice on how to make them safer by preventing illness from germs and bacteria.
No substitute for cleanliness at picnics
“Food safety begins with ensuring hands, surfaces and utensils are all clean,” said Jenna Anding, Ph.D., AgriLife Extension associate head, Department of Nutrition and Food Science, College Station. “If there’s no running water, use a water jug, soap and paper towels or moist disposable wipes or hand sanitizer to clean your hands. To be especially safe, use a disinfecting or sanitizing spray on any tables, benches, chairs or other surfaces you expect to use during the picnic.”
However, Anding said, plates, serving trays and utensils should only be cleaned with dishwashing soap and warm or hot water. They should never be sprayed with bleach or disinfectant as these are not safe if consumed.
She said once utensils and platters are adequately cleaned, they should be kept separate from food or other items to avoid possible cross-contamination.
“The same plate and utensils used for preparing raw food should not be used for serving cooked food,” she said. “Use a clean plate and utensil set for the foods you cook as this will reduce the risk of bacterial transfer.”
Separate foods and don’t partially pre-cook for picnics
Anding said separating foods in coolers can help ensure safer picnics.
“Keep raw meat, poultry and seafood securely wrapped and stored separately in a cooler, away from other foods,” she said.
Anding also warned against partially cooking meats in advance with plans to finish cooking them at the picnic site.
“Cook them fully and thoroughly either at home or at the picnic site,” she said. “And of those options, the better one is to cook them to a safe internal temperature at the picnic site.”
She also suggested putting beverages in one cooler and perishable foods in another.
“That way, you don’t have to frequently open the same cooler your food is in to get a drink,” Anding said. “Opening the cooler fewer times will expose perishable foods less to warm outdoor air temperatures.”
If you’re serving fresh fruits or vegetables, make sure to rinse them thoroughly before packing them and putting them in a cooler, said Rebecca Dittmar, family and community health program specialist for food protection management, Kerr County. “Scrub vegetables with a clean brush and dry fruits and vegetables with a clean cloth towel or with paper towels.”
Beware the food temperature ‘danger zone’
Dittmar said harmful bacteria grow most rapidly in the “danger zone” of temperatures between 40 and 140 degrees.
“Cold food should be kept at 40 degrees or lower to help limit bacterial growth,” she said. “If you have meat, poultry or seafood that’s already frozen, you can put it in the cooler to ensure it stays cold longer. Try to keep coolers in the interior of your vehicle instead of the trunk, and take only however much food you plan to eat that day.”
Dittmar said perishable foods such as hot dogs, burgers, poultry, deviled eggs and macaroni or potato salad also should be kept in a well-insulated cooler at 40 degrees or below.
“Once the coolers are placed where needed, keep them closed as much as possible to keep the contents cooler for a longer period of time,” she said.
She said once cold food is served, it should not be allowed to sit out for any longer than two hours — one hour if the temperature is above 90 degrees.
“On the other hand, hot food should be kept hot – at or above 140 degrees,” Dittmar said. “Wrap cooked food well and place it in an insulated container until it’s ready to be served.”
She said poultry and hot dogs should be cooked to a 165-degree internal temperature, and hamburgers to 160 degrees. Beef, pork, lamb and veal steaks, chops and roasts should be cooked to at least a 145-degree internal temperature.
Cooked foods should also be allowed to “rest” for 3 minutes before serving.
Dittmar suggested unpacking the cooler as soon as possible after returning home.
“Refrigerate any leftover meats and salads that have remained sufficiently cold while in the cooler, and discard any foods that have become too warm,” she said.
Anding and Dittmar said following these food safety guidelines for a picnic or other outing that involves the transportation and preparation of food will reduce the chance of foodborne illness.