Food Protection Connection: The Perfect Picnic: Food Safety is Key for Outdoor Events
Each Food Protection Connection article is approved for 1 hr CE (sanitation) for CDM, CFPPs and 1 CPE hour (level 1) for RDs and DTRs.
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(reprinted from Dietary Manager, June 2011)
There’s no better way to spend a lovely summer day than under a beautiful blue sky with friends, family, great food, and refreshing drinks. But be careful of the uninvited guests—not so much the flies and ants, but the unseen bacteria that may be lurking around your picnic fare. Unattended picnic or barbeque foods that are perishable (potentially hazardous foods) sitting out on a warm summer day will begin very rapidly to develop high levels of bacteria that can potentially make your partygoers very ill. Being known as the hostess (or the CDM) that made everyone sick at the summer cookout is not the reputation anyone wants.
Illness resulting from food borne pathogens may be mild to severe and can induce nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, fever, headache, and similar symptoms. It could take from 30 minutes up to several days following the consumption of contaminated food for symptoms to begin to present. Food borne illness will be most severe in children, the elderly, pregnant women, or anyone who may be immune compromised. By taking some very simple steps, you can feel confident that the foods you are serving at your next picnic or barbecue are safe for everyone to enjoy, whether you are serving residents and staff at your facility or family and friends.
Keep Cold Foods Cold
Keeping cold foods cold is sometimes easier said than done. Cold foods should be kept at 41°F or below. Foods should never remain in the temperature danger zone for more than four hours. After four hours, discard. How do you keep food cold on a hot summer day? Here are several suggestions:
- Start by placing your picnic tables in the shade or under a tarp/tent. This will bring the heat that’s beating down from the sun’s rays onto your food down by at least 10°F.
- Place the bowl of food to be served inside a larger bowl that’s filled with ice. Your ice will need to be monitored and refilled as it melts.
- For larger parties, prepare several smaller bowls/trays of the same item. Try to only serve what can be consumed in one hour. For instance, instead of having one large fruit tray, make three or four smaller fruit trays. Keep the extras in your refrigerator (if available) or coolers. As each tray is consumed, replace it with a fresh tray. This makes more work, but no one ever said hosting a party was pure fun; it’s a lot of work! This will also keep your food table looking neat and fresh, instead of looking like a tornado just blew through.
- For foods stored in coolers, ice packs often will not cut it on a very hot day. Consider using a combination of ice packs and ice. Keep your ice in baggies that zip tight so your food will not get wet and soggy. If you have a dark-colored cooler, place it under a table or cover it with a light-colored cloth. Dark colors will absorb more heat and melt your ice inside a lot faster. If traveling, consider transporting your cooler inside an air conditioned car, rather than in a hot trunk or on the vehicle’s rooftop.
- Check your food often. If foods are beginning to warm and have been out of refrigeration/coolers for more than two hours, place them back in the refrigerator/coolers for a while to cool them down.
- Consider limiting the food serving time of your picnic or party to a two-hour time frame. Let your guests know that food will be served from 2:00-4:00 only, for example.
Avoid Cross Contamination
If you will be handling raw meat products at your summer feast, be sure to separate raw foods from ready-to-eat foods.
- Properly thaw your meat. Plan ahead and thaw your meat in the refrigerator two days in advance of your picnic. Your meat should be fully thawed before cooking. Partially thawed meats are very hard to grill properly to assure a fully cooked final product.
- Keep the raw meat cold, below 41°F, until you are ready to grill or cook it.
- Consider cooking your meat ahead of time. Chicken and pork (ribs) can be broiled or boiled and then cooled a day or two in advance. Not only will you not have to deal with cross-contamination at your picnic, but you will cut down on your grilling time.
- Have separate platters for raw and ready-to-eat meats. Consider using disposable trays or aluminum pans for your raw products. This will allow you to simply throw them away when empty, avoiding cleaning of dishes and cross-contamination at the same time.
- Keep raw animal products in separate coolers, away from ready-to-eat foods. You may think your baggies or plastic bowls won’t leak, but they will.
- Provide serving utensils for all of your food dishes. Do not allow your guests to serve themselves with their own forks and spoons. No double dipping at this table!
- For picnics away from home or facility, pack all of your clean dishes, utensils and similar in plastic bins just for clean items. If you have many helpers at your picnic, consider marking your bins “Clean Dishes Only.”
- Similarly, bring plastic tubs with lids to place all dirty dishes in. This will assure they don’t get mixed up with the clean dishes. Mark the bins “Dirty Dishes Only.”
Cook Foods Thoroughly
All raw foods have bacteria on them. Some raw foods may even have pathogenic bacteria on them that could make you and your guests very ill. For this reason you must be vigilant to cook all foods to their proper temperatures. This will assure that any pathogens present on your foods are reduced to the level where they can no longer make you sick. You cannot be sure if your food is fully cooked unless you actually take a food temperature. That means you need a food thermometer. You can pick one up at any grocery store, or if grilling foods for your clients, use the thermometers you use every day at your facility. Appearance, color, and touch are not reliable methods to assess doneness. Take the temperature in the thickest and most central part of the food without touching any bones.
Safe Food Temperature Chart
|Steaks and Roasts||145°F|
|Ground Beef or Any Ground Meat||155°F|
|Poultry of Any Kind||165°F|
|Any Stuffed Meats or Foods and Casseroles||165°F|
|Shrimp, Lobster, and Crabs||145°F (Opaque)|
|Clams, Oysters, and Mussels||145°F (Shell will open. Do not eat if shell does not open .)|
Source: www .fda .gov
Review the Safe Food Temperature Chart provided above (2009 FDA Food Code cooking temperatures). Copy or cut out this chart and stick it on your refrigerator. When you see it among the pictures of family and friends that are probably also posted on your refrigerator, it will remind you of whom you are protecting when you cook your foods thoroughly.
Hot Foods Hot
Believe it or not, the 95°F heat from the sun will not be hot enough to keep your hot foods safe from pathogen growth. Hot foods should be kept at 135°F. If you have electricity, you are in business. Keep hot foods in warmers such as crock pots. No electricity? That’s no excuse. You can use disposable chafing pans that work with a heat source such as Sterno fuel. A few extra dollars? Yes, but happier and healthier guests make the investment worthwhile.
If you are at home or on your facility’s patio, you are in luck for this food safety tip. Wash your hands. Allow your guests to wash their hands. Keep soap and paper towels available. Try to avoid the common hand towel. After a use or two they become a Petri dish of contamination themselves and do more harm than good.
Picnicking outside? Include hand wipes and hand sanitizer in your supplies. Use a hand wipe to remove the obvious dirt on your hands. Follow up with hand sanitizer to finish off the dirt you cannot see.
You are eating outside at a picnic table or seated around a campfire. Did you bring the tables and grill, or were they provided for your use? Even outdoors, your tables and food equipment need to be clean. Whether the party is at home, on your facility’s patio, or you are traveling, consider the following:
- The grill: Scrape the grill to make it free from prior grilling drips, spills, and soot. Once it’s scraped free of the large dirt, fire up the heat. Allow the grill grates to heat up fully before you place your food on it. Not only will it keep your food from sticking to the grill, but it will allow any unseen bacteria that may have been growing on the grill to be cooked to destruction.
- Tablecloths/tables: Wipe down your tables. If outdoors, cover picnic tables with cleanable or disposable tablecloths if they cannot be wiped down with a cleaner/sanitizer. You can imagine how many animals, bugs, and birds may have visited that table recently. You may think… who really cares? Well, your guest touches that table and gets fecal material on their hands from the bird that visited the prior day and then begins to serve themselves food. Guess where that fecal material is now? Now add to that visual a beautiful 95°F day where the germs in your food are beginning to thrive and grow. Within a few hours, you will have a pot full of pathogens that were not on the menu.
- Spray sanitizer: It may seem like overkill, but take a moment to add a small bottle of spray sanitizer to the picnic supplies. You will find it very useful. Have a spill? Wipe it up. Have the spoon fall down into the beans? Fish it out (with a clean utensil, not your hands) and wipe off the spoon. Be careful to use a “food safe” cleaner. You can even pre-mix a spray bottle of your own sanitizer. Mix 1 tablespoon of unscented chlorine bleach to one gallon of cool water. This will be effective enough to reduce pathogens and remain food safe should it come in contact with food or food contact surfaces.
Bugs are the other uninvited guests! Unfortunately, when outdoors you have to deal with pesky creatures. Bugs spread germs…take a guess where they were feeding last? Do you really want them walking on your picnic fare? Many yard sprays and foggers are available, but please spray before you bring food/equipment outside or unpack your supply boxes. Spray downwind so as not to spray yourself. Also, consider other options… vanilla candles, citronella, and other non-toxic means to keep bugs from dining with you. Keep covers on your foods to help keep pests from landing directly on your foods.
Don’t Put Food Safety on the Back Burner
The next time you begin the process of planning a picnic or outdoor barbeque for your clients, family, or friends, take the time to consider food safety. Plan ahead and have your tool box of food safety equipment, supplies, and knowledge ready. Don’t let those pesky unseen germs be the uninvited guests at your next outdoor party. Be the host whose guests leave with fond memories along with happy and healthy bellies!
by Melissa Vaccaro, MS, CHO
Melissa Vaccaro, MS, CHO is a Food Program Specialist for the PA Department of Agriculture and an Executive Board Member for the Central Atlantic States Association of Food Drug Officials (CASA). Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.