Proper food handling and preparation important for picnics, barbecues, and camping

ODA – Summer has officially arrived. That means camping, picnics, and barbecues filled with a number of seasonal favorites when it comes to food. However, the potential for food-borne illness increases in June, July, and August– more than other times of the year. The Oregon Department of Agriculture has some tips on how to enjoy all the summer foods so popular during the season.

“There probably is more concern this time of year just because people are preparing food more often outside their kitchen,” says ODA Food Safety Specialist Susan Kendrick. “When people are out on a picnic or camping, they don’t necessarily have the temperature control that they have in the kitchen. You lose some of the convenience when you prepare food outside, such as refrigeration and having sinks available to wash everything easily. Maybe it’s a different person doing the grilling on the barbecue than the person who is normally cooking the rest of the year. Everyone just needs to be more careful.” Proper handling, preparation, and storage of food is often more problematic when it is cooked and consumed outdoors, even though most of the same rules apply to both outdoor and indoor food safety. Continued reports of food pathogens, including last year’s cases of listeria linked to fresh cantaloupe from Colorado and E. coli linked to Oregon strawberries, may have heightened food safety awareness among some consumers, but the summer barbecue, picnic, or campout makes it more imperative to follow some simple rules. Thorough cooking of meats is very important in diminishing the risk of illness. Ideally, a thermometer should be used to make sure the proper temperature is reached, even if it isn’t always practical on picnics or barbecues.

“You need to cook poultry at an internal temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit, ground beef at 155 degrees, and whole, intact meats at 145 degrees,” says Kendrick. “It’s not a good idea to just rely on appearance to tell if something has been thoroughly cooked.”

Cross-contamination in the preparation of the food is always a major concern as well. When handling any raw meat product– either taking it to a barbecue or another preparation area– make sure any tongs, spatulas, scoops, and the platter carrying the meat are all exchanged with a fresh, clean utensil or platter to carry the cooked product back to the table. Cutting boards used in food preparation are also a potential source of problems. Using the same board to cut up chicken and then to chop salad ingredients should be avoided. The raw products have organisms that could produce illness if spread to ready-to-eat products. Of course, a good cleaning and sanitizing of the cutting board after chopping up raw meat products will minimize the risk.

Handwashing facilities are not always available or convenient. But anyone handling food, especially raw meat, should always wash their hands. While waterless hand-sanitizing gels are available, nothing beats the old-fashioned method of using soap and running water to mechanically remove bacteria from hands.

In transporting food items to a picnic or camping site, remember to keep products cold. Coolers filled with plenty of ice will keep things under control until it is time to prepare or consume the food.

“A combination of block and crushed ice works well because an ice block will hold the temperature in the cooler for a longer period of time,” says Kendrick. “What we are trying to do is keep food in the 40 to 140 degree temperature zone for the shortest time possible.”

Keeping that cooler or ice chest in the shade, if possible, might buy some additional time. Remember that food products will warm up quickly when taken out of the cooler and set out on the table. Bacteria begins to grow rapidly as the temperature warms up. Foods that need to be cooked should stay refrigerated or be prepared as soon as possible.

Once the food is cooked, it’s important to eat as soon as possible. Kendrick says no more than four hours is the maximum time food should be left sitting out. Any leftovers should be refrigerated once again. The best scenario is for all the perishable food items to be consumed so there are no leftovers.

A favorite expression of ODA”s Food Safety Division comes in handy during outdoor meals.

“When in doubt, throw it out,” says Kendrick.

For outdoor meals away from home, one of the best ways to avoid problems is to offer foods that don’t require preparation or refrigeration. Smart picnickers pack non-perishable food like potato chips, dried fruit rolls, and uncut fresh fruits and vegetables.

Once any fruit or vegetable is cut, it should be refrigerated or eaten immediately. Last fall’s outbreak of salmonella from contaminated cantaloupe in Colorado is an example of why. Melons are grown on the ground where the rind can come into contact with animal waste used as fertilizer. People don’t normally eat the rind, but when the melons are cut, the knife may transfer bacteria to the inside of the fruit. Consumers should be careful to wash the outside of the fruit after buying it, and refrigerate it after it’s been cut.

There may be a temptation to avoid certain fruits and vegetables normally associated with summer meals. Kendrick believes that would be a mistake.

“Certainly, there is the health benefit of eating fresh produce, so I wouldn’t discourage people from eating fruits and vegetables,” says Kendrick. “But people should definitely wash it before eating it, no matter what type of produce it is.”

Most summer food safety recommendations are just common sense. As long as people are careful about how food is handled, prepared, and stored, campouts, picnics, and barbecues can be fun, safe, and delicious.

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