Proper picnicking requires prudent preparation and plenty of precision, especially when it comes to serving food that won't make people sick.
Maybe that's not what you want to hear when impulse leads you to declare a gorgeous summer day as the perfect opportunity for a scrumptious picnic with family and/or friends. Then again, the last thing you want are unwanted guests showing up in the form of eensie-weensie bacteria determined to wreak havoc on human digestive systems.
As the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) points out, "… these warm weather events also present opportunities for foodborne bacteria to thrive. As food heats up in summer temperatures, bacteria multiply rapidly." The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), according to homefoodsafety.org, identifies eight known pathogens (disease-causing bacteria, viruses and parasites) that account for most foodborne illness, hospitalization and death in America, include familiar-sounding culprits such as salmonella, E. coli O157:H7 and norovirus.
A 2011 CDC report says food poisoning, or foodborne illness, is responsible each year for about 48 million Americans getting sick, 128,000 being hospitalized and 3,000 dying. Picnics provide opportunity, and improperly handled or prepared food provides motive, for pathogens to multiply and in short order send folks reeling from diarrhea, stomach cramping, nausea and vomiting.
This can also happen at home or in your local restaurant, but picnics, especially, are a perfect breeding ground for such foodborne illnesses, sometimes because of the haste and carelessness involved in throwing together a picnic without a lot of forethought or diligent care.
"At the same time temperatures rise, we're more likely to leave food unrefrigerated for longer periods of time at picnics, barbecues and during travels," say nutrition specialist Lisa Franzen-Castle and Alice Hennemen, an extension educator with the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, writing at food.unl.edu.
Following are some tips to follow in preparing edibles for a picnic:
· Don't thaw meat overnight on the kitchen counter; stick it in the fridge so it still will be cold yet thawed enough to easily cook when you take it out in the morning.
· Pack food, with plenty of ice, into two insulated coolers – one for the perishable foods (meats, salads, veggie for munching, etc.); the other for the beverages. This cuts down on unnecessarily opening the cooler to grab a drink, each time warming the food just that much more.
· Don't partially pre-cook meat before heading out. Once it is cooked, or grilled, don't let it sit for more than an hour before eating it. Also, cook meat thoroughly: consider using a food thermometer, or at least cutting open meat to check if it's properly cooked before turning off the grill.
· Use a clean serving plate for cooked food, not the same plate used for the raw food.
· If cooked food has been sitting out more than an hour, throw it away. Better to go a bit hungry than the alternative.
· Keep your hands, utensils and plates or platters clean, time after time. A water jug, soap, paper towels and disposable wet wipes, or hand sanitizer, come in handy, literally.
· Don't reuse marinade, such as teriyaki sauce or barbecue sauce.
· Keep condiments known to spoil quickly, such as mayonnaise, in ice when not in actual use. Ditto for sliced melons and mayonnaise-based salads, such as chicken salad, coleslaw and potato salad.
· Transport coolers of food inside the vehicle (assuming the AC is working), away from the heat of your trunk. Onsite for the picnic, find some shade for the cooler(s), and keep them closed
· Refrigerate leftover food as soon as you get home. However, if you brought it back without being in ice, throw away. Ditto the salads: if warm, toss them.
· Check for foreign objects in food, such as bristles detached from a grill brush, before eating.
· If you bring bug or sunscreen spray, keep well away from the food when using.
· Consider bringing nonperishables in place of perishables, such as bags of chips or pretzels instead of coleslaw, or dried fruit in place of a fruit salad.