Picnic food safety greater concern in hot weather
Ants aren't the only little creatures that can spoil a summer picnic, said a food safety expert with the Texas AgriLife Extension Service.
"Another thing that can spoil a picnic or other outing is food-borne bacteria from improperly handled, prepared or stored foods," said Rebecca Dittmar, AgriLife Extension associate for food protection management.
"Hot temperatures accelerate the production of bacteria that contain toxins which may cause food poisoning," Dittmar said. "Typically you can't see, smell or taste food-borne bacteria."
Symptoms of food-borne illness include a fever or headache, stomach cramps, vomiting and diarrhea.
Picnic foods typically require a lot of handling, and the more foods are handled the greater the risk of contamination, Dittmar said.
"The key guidelines to follow for better picnic food safety are: clean, separate, cook and chill," she said.
Dittmar said hands should be washed thoroughly, as should the surfaces on which food is being prepared and any containers, serving pieces or utensils being used.
"Since many picnic areas may not have easy access to running water, it's a good idea to bring your own dish washing soap and water, hand sanitizer or anti-bacterial wipes," she said.
She added that it's especially important to keep picnic foods separated when storing, preparing and serving them.
"Use a separate cutting board for fresh produce and raw meats," she said. "Foods to be grilled on-site should be securely wrapped so juices don't drip onto other foods. They should be separated from vegetables and premade foods, preferably in their own cooler.
"Keep them in the cooler until you're ready to cook and only take out the amount you intend to put on the grill."
Dittmar added that separating raw and cooked foods will help avoid cross-contamination, and keeping foods covered will help avoid contamination from insects or foreign objects.
Hot foods should be kept hot and cold foods should be kept cold, she noted, and beverages and perishable foods should be kept in separate coolers.
Dittmar suggests cooking steaks and fish to a minimum internal temperature of 145 degrees. She adds that pork and hamburgers are best cooked to an interior temperature of 160 degrees, while poultry should have an interior temperature of at least 165 degrees.
"A food thermometer is a small but valuable investment for helping ensure food safety by making certain the interior temperature of foods is adequate," she said.
She also recommends keeping hot foods at 140 degrees or higher until served.
Cold foods prepared for picnicking should be kept at a temperature of 40 degrees or lower, she added. The cooler should be placed in the interior of the vehicle, not the trunk.
"Once you get to the picnic site, put the cooler in the shade, and only open it when necessary, leaving food inside until just before serving time," Dittmar said.