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Annual food safety reminder

Many of us have fond memories of family picnics and outdoor cooking from childhood. All you needed was a blanket and some food and you could set up a picnic on your lawn, at a park or even in the living room in the winter.

Today, grills are prominent features on most patios and decks. If you haven’t shopped for grills recently, you might be amazed at all the types of grills and grilling accessories.

We didn’t have a charcoal grill until I was in high school, but we had an old campsite stove that my dad kept tuning up, so it lasted for decades. Although we were engaged in “outdoor frying” in heavy cast iron pans instead of grilling, that worked for us. We all enjoyed the aromas of burgers, steaks and other foods wafting around our yard. I think our neighbours did, too.

I especially liked the fried potatoes, which were crispy and well browned. For some reason, all the foods tasted better when they were cooked outdoors. We certainly didn’t require a lot of enticement to take our places at the picnic table. However, we did have to battle a bit with pesky flies and mosquitoes.

When the weather is warm, people enjoy bringing their meal preparation outdoors. Not only does it make memories, but it keeps the kitchen cool and provides a more economical dining experience than eating at a restaurant.

As with any food preparation, keeping your eye on safe food handling is important. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, foodborne illness cases peak during the summer months for a couple of reasons.

Although pests, such as flies and mosquitoes, can be visible invaders at our picnics, the bugs we can’t see are more problematic. Micro-organisms thrive during the warm, humid summer months. Unlike humans who suffer when the thermometer rises, bacteria and other germs thrive. In fact, the temperature range of 32.2 C to 43.3 C is where foodborne bacteria grow the fastest.

Some homes feature “outdoor kitchens,” but most people lack the safety controls that a kitchen offers when they move their food preparation outdoors. When at picnic sites, we usually lack running water, thermostat-controlled appliances and refrigeration. So, we need to take steps to make up for the shortcomings in our environment to keep our food safe at picnics and barbecues.

  • Always wash your hands before you handle food or eat. If there is no running water at the picnic area, bring some hand sanitizer or wet wipes to clean hands. Or bring extra water for the purpose of washing hands and utensils.
  • Use separate cutting boards when cutting up meat and cutting up vegetables for a salad (or thoroughly wash the cutting board with hot, soapy water between uses). Even better, sanitize the cutting board by immersing it in a solution of one tablespoon of unscented chlorine bleach in one gallon of water. Allow the board to soak a couple minutes, and then air-dry.
  • Rinse the outside of whole fruit (including melons) with cold running water, using a produce brush if necessary. Consider doing this step at home, then cut up the fruit and place in a covered bowl in a cooler to stay cold.
  • Use insulated coolers filled with ice or frozen gel packs to pack perishable foods such as salads and cut-up fruits and vegetables.
  • Keep raw meat separate from ready-to-eat foods, including canned beverages. Use separate coolers to prevent meat juices from getting on salads and beverage containers.
  • On hot days (32.2 C plus), keep perishable food outside of a cooler no more than one hour.
  • Transport perishable foods in the passenger compartment of your vehicle (not a hot trunk).
  • When cooking at the site, use a food thermometer to check doneness of meat. Cook steaks and pork chops to an internal temperature of at least 62.7 C (145 F). Cook chicken and other poultry to 73.8 C (165 F) and burgers to at least 71.1 C (160 F). Be sure to clean the thermometer thoroughly between types of meat.
  • Cover food with plastic wrap or foil to protect it from insects (which carry bacteria on their bodies). Be sure not to spray pesticides near food.

About the author


Julie Garden-Robinson is a North Dakota State University Extension Service food and nutrition specialist and professor in the department of health, nutrition and exercise sciences.

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