Picnics are supposed to be a fun way to enjoy a relaxing meal with family and friends, but whole events - and even lives - can be ruined when the basics of food safety practices and science are forgotten or overlooked, creating a perfect breeding ground for unwanted bacteria that can turn what should be a pleasant memory into an unforgettable nightmare - and even a deadly one.
The unwanted guests? A myriad of fast growing bacteria, the worst of which is the always dangerous and often deadly E. coli bacteria.
At a company picnic in Germantown, Ohio, earlier this month, nearly 70 guests fell ill after a massive E. coli outbreak. Fourteen people have been hospitalized with three in serious condition. According to officials with Public Health-Dayton and Montgomery County, the culprit in at least 16 cases at the Germantown incident has been identified as E. coli O157:H7.
Health officials across the nation have many suggestions available free of charge to the public, with much of the standard information available online through national, state and county health departments, as well as hard copies made available at public libraries nationwide.
Just because you are heading out to the backyard, to the park on a family reunion just a couple hours drive from your home - from your kitchen - it is not the time to forget to use common sense when making menu choices, as well as being vigilant about making sure everyone helping with food preparation and getting the meal to the table uses safe food handling practices.
There are many ideas experts can suggest to employ as you fight to prevent food borne bacteria illnesses from developing, but likely at the top of every list is something anyone can and should practice: regular hand washing.
The Complete Picnic Basket
Salt and pepper shakers. Essential at any meal
Can opener. Not used often, but required when required
Cork screw. Basic
Knife. Something cheap (Ginsu-like), and make a scabbard from cardboard and tape
Cutting board. You don't want that Ginsu knife touching your car's hood
Plastic tarp. Ground gets wet
Blanket. You've got to have a picnic blanket
Paper plates. Use it and toss it (properly!), don't drive around with dirty plates
Plastic utensils. See previous
Plastic cups. Glasses are nice for special occasions, but having plastic cups around is never a mistake
Paper napkins. See "Plastic cups" above and insert "napkins"
Wet naps. The greatest addition to picnicking since the basket
Zip-lock bags. Always handy
Plastic grocery bags. Picnic-sized garbage bags
Garbage bags. Big garbage bags
"For some reason, when people go outside, they leave all of those wonderful food safety tips in the kitchen, and they often forget to transfer them outside to the barbecue," says Joan Salge Blake of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. "Remember, home food safety rules also apply in the backyard."
"Bacteria and germs need the combination of food, moisture, and heat to grow. Temperatures between 40 and 140 degrees are not suitable for food storage, and foods left in these temperatures for over four hours are firmly inside the 'danger zone'," said an expert with The Partnership for Food Safety Education. "In hot weather (above 90 degrees) food should never sit for more than 1 hour."
A rule you never want to bend or break: any leftover food that has been sitting out for more than two hours should be thrown away.
It is also a good idea to make sure all foods are properly covered and that they are kept in a shaded area, or better yet, kept in a cooler.
When choosing items for your picnic menu, give a little extra look at dishes best enjoyed at room-temperature, such as sandwiches, salads and cheeses.
If your picnic outing includes grilling meats, it is a good idea to take a thermometer along. Meat and poultry cooked on a grill often browns very fast on the outside, but the inside may not be ready to eat. To make sure you are serving properly cooked meats, remember to pack a meat thermometer and to use it, suggest experts.
If you're not sure about internal cooking temperatures, cook all raw beef, pork, lamb and veal steaks, chops, and roasts to a minimum internal temperature of 145 degrees Fahrenheit.
Just to be on the safe side, and to add a little extra quality flavor to your meal, allow meat to rest for at least three minutes before carving or eating.
Smart cooking standards for a picnic with meats on the menu are prepared from a raw state - such as ground beef, pork, lamb, and veal - to an internal temperature of 160 degrees Fahrenheit as measured with a food thermometer. Cook all poultry to a safe, minimum internal temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit as measured with a food thermometer.
Cook meat and poultry completely at the picnic site. Partial cooking of food ahead of time allows bacteria to survive and multiply to the point that subsequent cooking cannot destroy them.
If your choice of how you will carry your foods to the picnic site leans toward the tradition of a beautifully crafted woven picnic basket, it will still merit a good cleaning before and after putting it to use.
However, if your choice involves a cooler, always make sure to thoroughly clean it out before and after each use, as creases and corners of these items are a favorite hangout for unfriendly bacteria.
Other basic and easy to follow ideas for safe and successful picnics include the following points:
If you choose to use ice, keep it from coming into direct contact with your foods by making sure they are wrapped or in containers.
"Picnic foods are especially susceptible to food safety problems because conditions often aren't sanitary, food may not be cooked properly, and heat and humidity could accelerate the growth of bacteria and other microorganisms," said Jeff LeJeune, microbiologist with Ohio State University Extension and the university's Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center.
"The most important thing people can do to keep food safe is to wash their hands thoroughly and often," said the extension service expert. "Hand sanitizers and sanitizing wipes can help, but nothing replaces washing hands with soap under running water to keep hands clean, especially when you're handling food.
"And be sure the water you use to wash your hands is clean. If you're not sure clean running water is available at a picnic site, take a few gallon jugs of water with you, just to use to wash your hands."
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