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Packing for Picnics

Posted: June 10, 2011

Those lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer are here. Warm weather provides ideal temperatures for bacteria to grow to dangerous levels and cause foodborne illness.

Bacteria grow rapidly when food is between 40°- 140°F - the Danger Zone. In the span of a few hours, billions of bacteria can be produced with the potential for disaster. The time in the danger zone is cumulative. To keep foods safe, keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold. Practice the 2-hour rule; do not allow foods in the danger zone for more than 2 hours total (1 hour if the temperature is< above 90°F) from purchase to consumption.

As you are shopping for picnic items, buy perishables last and go straight home. Never leave perishables in the car while you do other shopping. Chill all ingredients before assembling salads, sandwiches, and other potentially hazardous foods. Chill again before packing the cooler.

Foods that are safe at room temperature include peanut butter sandwiches, cookies, crackers, dried fruit, unopened cans of fruit or pudding, unopened juice boxes and fruit filled pastries.

Keep foods safe in transit by packing them in insulated bags, lunch boxes or coolers with frozen gel packs. Make sure food is cold or frozen before placing it in the cooler. Use cold packs throughout large containers, not just on the top or bottom. Pack the cooler carefully with raw products well wrapped, placed on the bottom so raw foods will not drip on cooked.

Transport the cooler in the passenger compartment of the car. At the picnic area place it in the shade or in a shelter out of the sun and keep the lid closed. If you are brown bagging, use new, clean bags; used grocery bags are a potential source of bacteria and insects. Wash the cooler or lunch box after each use to keep bacteria from growing.

Everything that touches the food needs to be clean - bowls, utensils, cutting boards, etc. Wash your hands before and after preparing or handling food to keep bacteria from being transferred. Take along wet wipes and antibacterial gel to clean hands if no running water is available.

When you are packing, take only what you think you will use. If you do have leftovers, put them back in the cooler as soon as possible.

If you are grilling foods, take care not to cross contaminate by handling raw meat and then cooked foods without washing hands and utensils in between. Cook burgers to 160°F and use a food thermometer to check the temperature. Serve immediately or keep hot (140° F) until serving. Do not reuse the same plate and utensils for raw and cooked food.

Whatever the season, some individuals are more at risk to get foodborne illness than others. Small children, elderly, pregnant women, and immune compromised individuals are all at higher risk. There is more chance of foodborne illness occurring in the summer because of the warmer temperatures. Don't spoil a summer outing by leaving food in the danger zone too long.

Nancy Wiker, Family & Consumer Sciences Educator, Lancaster County