Seattle, Wash. — Eating outdoors with family and friends in warm, sunny weather is one of summer’s basic pleasures, and will certainly be part of many people’s Labor Day weekend plans. The final weeks of summer will bring the year’s last chance for family outings, picnics and get-togethers — and an increased risk for food-borne illnesses.
“Bacteria really like the warm weather too,” says Susan Adams, a registered dietician and member of the Washington State University Cooperative Extension faculty in King County. “And they like many of the same foods we do.”
But Adams points out that by following food safety basics you can significantly lower the risk of food-borne bacteria crashing the party and spoiling your fun.
Cleanliness is the most fundamental and effective food safety practice. That applies to both hands and cooking utensils.
Wash your hands thoroughly and often when handling foods, especially raw meats. Hands should not only be washed before handling raw meat, but afterward as well to avoid transferring germs to other foods. Knives, cutting boards and other utensils used with raw meat should be washed with warm soapy water before being used again.
“Always try to bring adequate water for hand washing and for keeping cooking utensils clean,” Adams advises. “To conserve water you can scrimp a little while soaping up, but always rinse well and dry thoroughly with a clean cloth or paper towel.”
If water is in limited supply Adams warns to be careful about using water from lakes, streams or other untreated sources, even for washing up.
“Remember that when you wash your hands in untreated water any germs in the rinse water will stay on your hands and could make you sick,” she says. “You can spread the germs when you handle food, touch someone’s hand, or touch your mouth or nose.”
The solution? Always boil water from untreated sources, or treat it with water purification tablets even if it’s only for washing.
Temperature is always a major factor in keeping food safe.
“Bacteria love to grow in perishable foods like meats, fish, eggs and dairy foods, the stuff many of us like to include in our picnic baskets,” Adams says. “They thrive at temperatures between 40 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit, so they go crazy in the warm summer temperatures.”
The best precaution is to keep hot foods hot, and cold foods cold. “Keeping foods ‘stove-top’ hot through an afternoon picnic can be challenging, but ice chests with plenty of ice can keep perishable foods cold until you’re ready to cook and eat,” Adams says. “When you’re ready to picnic, set things out and let everybody enjoy the meal, but once the plates are set aside get the perishables back into the ice chest as soon as possible. That includes meats from the grill and cooked starchy foods like beans, cooked rice and pasta.”
If you’re attending an outing where someone else is providing the meal, look to see that hot foods are kept hot and cold foods kept cold.
“If you’re unsure, stick to foods or beverages in sealed packages or foods that are generally safe at room temperature like breads, crackers, chips and fresh fruits and vegetables,” Adams says. “If the foods have been sitting out for several hours you’ll probably feel better tomorrow if you remain a bit graciously hungry today.”
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