Take precautions to make picnic dining safe
By MARC J. YACHT
© St. Petersburg Times,
September still is one of Florida's sweltering months. When venturing out of doors it becomes a challenge to cool off.
Attend any park and you will see a large array of picnickers. More than half the county will have picnicked this summer, and Labor Day weekend represents the last three-day weekend of the hot summer months.
Families, church groups, and block parties are common; and invariably there will be food. Lots of eats: hotdogs, hamburgers, corn on the cob, beans, mashed potatoes, leafy green salads, chicken salad, egg salad, potato salad, cold deli, baby foods, fried chicken, lamb chops, steaks, pork, ribs, cooler drinks, pop, potato chips, not to forget, ketchup, mustard, mayonnaise and much more. I am getting hungry just thinking about it.
Unfortunately, food safety at picnics may not be a high priority. The Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta suggests that 76-million people in the United States experience food-related sickness each year. Bacteria, viruses and parasites may cause these infections. More than 300,000 victims are hospitalized and 5,000 will die from maladies caused by contaminated food. Picnics are a large contributor to those statistics. More importantly, food-related disease is largely preventable with appropriate precautions.
Raw foods are most likely to be contaminated. Those include, but are not limited to, beef, chicken, eggs, unpasteurized milk and cheese and raw shellfish. Fruits and vegetables eaten raw are also a concern because they may be processed in unsanitary conditions.
Unfortunately, most food-borne contamination is only discovered after folks have suffered illness. Affected food products, for the most part, cannot be identified without laboratory testing.
Food safety begins when shopping. Keep meat and poultry away from other food in your shopping cart. Load meat and poultry in the coolest part of your car and get those groceries straight home and in the refrigerator. If home is more than 30 minutes away, place perishable food in a cooler with ice.
A cooler with lots of ice should be a required item when transporting eats to a picnic and while there, and should hold temperatures to 40 degrees or below. A good rule is to keep cold foods cold and hot foods hot. The danger zone is from 40 degrees to 140 degrees. Foods will contaminate quickly in mid range.
Preparation and handling are the keys to food safety and prevention. The rule of four will reduce the risk of food borne illness:
1. Cook foods to the proper temperature. Measure the internal temperature of meat to be sure it is cooked sufficiently to kill bacteria. For example, ground beef should be cooked to an internal temperature of 160 degrees. Eggs should be boiled until the yolk is firm.
2. Separate: Don't cross-contaminate one food with another. To avoid this, wash hands, utensils and cutting boards with soap and warm running water after they have been in contact with raw meat or poultry and before they touch another food. Put cooked meat on a clean platter rather than one that has held raw meat.
3. Chill. Refrigerate foods promptly. Bacteria grow quickly at room temperatures, so refrigerate foods that are not going to be eaten within one hour. Divide large volumes of food into several shallow containers so they will cool more quickly.
4. Clean. Wash surfaces often, and wash hands with soap and water before preparing food and avoid preparing food for others if you have a diarrheal illness. Rinse fresh fruits and vegetables in running tap water to remove visible dirt and grime. Bacteria can grow well on the cut surface of fruit or vegetables, be careful not to contaminate these foods while slicing them on the cutting board.
Folks at risk for food-borne illness should avoid certain fare. For example, people with liver disease should avoid raw oysters, and pregnant women should cook meat well and avoid soft French-style cheeses and sliced deli meats. Infants' bottles should remain adequately chilled and juice or formula that has become room temperature should be discarded. Bottles should be cleaned and disinfected before being used again.
Other important tips:
Marinate meat and poultry in a refrigerator, not on a counter. Boiling the marinade will destroy any harmful bacteria before placing on cooked meat or poultry.
Keep everything clean. Do not use the same platter or utensils for raw and cooked meat and poultry or vegetables.
Try to minimize leftovers, but promptly refrigerate them or discard any uncovered food or covered food exposed to high temperatures more than one hour. When in doubt, throw it out!
Pack foods in a cooler in an order opposite of the way you will use them. The foods you will need last should be at the bottom.
Keep coolers in the air-conditioned part of your car. Control the flames on a barbecue by having a pint spray bottle of water mixed with one teaspoon of baking soda.
Most of all, use common sense. Properly prepared food placed on a dirty picnic table will put you at risk. Warn children to discard food that has fallen on the ground. Hopefully, adults understand this. If you join other picnickers, make sure they have been as careful as you.
Illness at picnics is reportable to the local health department. It is important to do this promptly and save food samples for an investigation. With a little bit of forethought, picnics can be fun as well as safe.
- Dr. Marc J. Yacht is director of the Pasco County unit of the state Health Department.
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