Take proper precautions for summer cookouts

Monday, May 7, 2012
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Summer kicks off later this month with Memorial Day weekend. For most people, that means cookouts or picnics with family and friends. But there's one party guest you don't want to make an appearance: Bacteria.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, each year an estimated 30 million food poisonings occur in the United States; more than half of those cases are the result of unsafe food handling practices at home.

Follow these guidelines for fun, delicious and safe summer cookouts:

WHAT TO PACK

The key to food safety is keeping cold foods cold and hot foods hot. That goes for the leftovers, too. That's why it's important to plan ahead and pack just the amount of food you'll need.

You can alleviate some of the worry by packing foods that don't require refrigeration or heat. Things like fruits (canned, dried or unpeeled fresh), vegetables, hard cheese, canned meat or fish, chips, bread, crackers, peanut butter, jelly, mustard and pickles are easy go-to picnic items.

Foodborne pathogens prefer foods high in protein and moisture like dairy products, poultry, meats, fish, shellfish, custards and potato salads. You probably look at that list and see a lot of picnic favorites. It's OK: A little precaution is all you need to enjoy them. Which leads us to ...

KEEPING COOL

A cooler, or preferably coolers, is essential for picnics. Packing them properly can maximize its usefulness.

When it comes to keeping foods cold, 40 degrees is the magic number. Anything above that, and you're inviting bacteria to start having its own party with your food.

Pack the colder foods at the bottom of your cooler. If you have frozen items like steaks or chicken, put them in first. They'll help chill everything else.

Keep cooked and raw foods in separate containers to avoid cross contamination. Place ground beef and other meats in zip-top bags for added protection.

Pack the food snugly into the cooler and make sure the lid fits tightly. Just before you're ready to leave, fill the cooler with ice or frozen gel packs.

Once the cooler is packed, open it as few times as possible. This exposes it to hot air, which allows the ice to melt faster. Pack a separate cooler with beverages -- that way when people are grabbing a soda, they won't be affecting the temperature in the food cooler.

When you're transporting the cooler to your picnic site, don't put it in the trunk or the back of the truck. Keep it in the air-conditioned part of the vehicle. Once at your destination, find a shady spot for it.

HOT STUFF

Care also needs to be taken with warm foods. You want to keep them above 140 degrees to discourage bacteria growth.

Wrap warm food in towels, then newspaper, then place it in an insulated container. Tin foil is also an option for wrapping food.

If you're serving takeout foods such as fried chicken, it needs to be consumed within two hours of the time you pick it up. You can also buy these items ahead of time and chill them to pack in the cooler.

COOKING AND SERVING

If you're grilling, preheat the coals for 20 to 30 minutes, or until the coals are lightly coated with ash.

Make sure you bring plenty of platters and cooking utensils. Anything that touches raw food shouldn't touch cooked food, unless the items have been washed with hot water and soap.

Bring a meat thermometer to make sure food is fully cooked. (See temperature chart)

Keep foods covered to prevent contamination by insects, which can carry harmful bacteria and viruses.

Individual serving dishes of foods like chicken salad and desserts can be placed directly on ice or in a shallow container set in a deep pan filled with ice. Just drain the water as ice melts and replace the ice frequently.

LEFTOVERS

Follow the two hour rule: Don't leave perishable food unrefrigerated for more than two hours, or one hour if the temperature hits 80 degrees or higher. Put perishable foods back in the cooler or refrigerator as soon as you finish eating. Don't leave them out while you go for a swim or a hike, and don't leave them out all afternoon to nibble on.

Discard leftovers that have been sitting out for more than two hours. Cold foods that were kept in a cooler that still has ice may be safe. If the ice has melted when you get home, the food should be discarded. Cold water doesn't keep food at a safe temperature.

Sources: USDA, USDA Food Safety Inspection Services, fightbac.org, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, myrecipes.com

Safe food temperatures

Steaks and roasts: 145 degrees

Fish: 145 degrees

Pork: 160 degrees

Ground beef: 160 degrees

Egg dishes: 160 degrees

Chicken breasts: 165 degrees

Whole poultry: 165 degrees

Shrimp, lobster, crabs: Cook until pearly and opaque

Clams, oysters, mussels: Cook until shells open

Source: USDA

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