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Take precautions for safer picnics
By Laura Whelan
MISSISSIPPI STATE -- Warm summer afternoons are perfect for picnics in the sunshine, but take special care to protect picnic foods from bacteria.
"Common picnic foods like meat, dairy products, eggs, sliced fruits and prepared salads are at risk for bacterial growth because they are high in protein and contain a large amount of moisture, both prime conditions for bacteria to grow," said Melissa Mixon, nutrition specialist with Mississippi State University's Extension Service. "But the greatest threat to food safety is the high summer temperatures, which allow microorganisms to flourish and result in contaminated foods."
The Food Safety and Inspection Service reports that foodborne illnesses are at their peak in the summer, when people are inclined to eat outdoors with little or no access to washing facilities or refrigeration.
Consuming contaminated foods can lead to severe illness, causing nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, diarrhea, headaches and fever that can last for several days.
But there are simple steps picnickers can take to make sure their food is safe.
"Sanitation begins with food preparation," Mixon said. "The first step is eliminating the chance of cross-contamination, which occurs when bacteria from raw meat and poultry juices spreads to other foods, utensils or surfaces."
Prepare meat and poultry at home before going on a picnic. After preparation, immediately return the raw meat or poultry to the refrigerator until ready to place in a cooler. Clean counters and cutting boards thoroughly with hot, soapy water and spray with a disinfectant consisting of one tablespoon of bleach and one gallon of water. Wash utensils and hands well.
Foods that are precooked at home should be cooled completely, placed in a cooler and then reheated at the picnic site.
Make sure there is adequate cooler space for foods that must be kept cold. Mixon recommended using a minimum of three coolers for transporting food to a picnic: one for foods that will be cooked on the grill, another for items that need to stay cold like lettuce or cheese, and a third cooler for soft drinks.
Place a layer of ice or frozen gel packs on the bottom of the cooler; then pack food and cover with another layer of ice. Keep coolers in the shade at the picnic site because direct sunlight will quickly melt the ice and warm the cooler's contents.
If coolers are not available for the picnic, consider taking peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, pretzels and whole fruits for picnic food. These foods do not require a cooler and are not susceptible to bacterial growth.
"It's also very important to plan to wash and sanitize hands on a picnic," Mixon said. "Bring soap and a gallon of water to use for washing. Antibacterial solution is an additional barrier against germs, but it's not powerful enough to use alone."
Bring along extra utensils and plates to reduce the risk of cross-contamination, and pack a food thermometer to test the temperature of foods on the grill. Meat should reach at least 170 degrees Fahrenheit to kill surface bacteria.
Refrigerate leftovers promptly to be eaten later. If leftovers remain outside without refrigeration for an hour or more, Mixon said the safest option is to toss them.
"If there is any question about whether the food is still good, just go ahead and throw it away," Mixon said. "It's not worth the risk."