August means picnics, pool parties, and grilling in the backyard. With great weather, it’s only natural for us to move our meals outdoors. But if you aren’t careful, your food will attract more than just flies: it could grow harmful bacteria leading to food poisoning. So, protect your family and friends from foodborne illness by handling foods safely while cooking and eating outdoors.
Picnic poisoning is food poisoning as a result of unsafe or unsanitary food preparation outdoors. According to the CDC, 48 million Americans get food poisoning every year. The same bacteria that cause food to degenerate and lead to food poisoning can also be undetectable by taste, smell, or sight. Although the threat of food poisoning is high, there are multiple steps you can take to make sure your picnic party doesn’t fall victim to foodborne illness:
1) Keep mayonnaise in the kitchen
While mayo makes a tasty addition to a sandwich, slaw, or pasta salad, it contains egg, which is unpasteurized and very susceptible to the growth of bacteria. The consequent bacteria are a common cause of food poisoning. It’s not necessary to completely remove mayonnaise from your diet entirely, but one should make sure it is kept at the right temperature. The longer mayonnaise is left out in the heat on a picnic table or next to the grill, the more time bacteria can grow.
2) Cold foods should be kept cold and hot foods should be kept hot
Warm outside temperatures can affect the safety of the foods you consume because bacteria grow faster in warmer temperatures. According to the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), your food is at greater risk of developing bacteria when kept in the “Danger Zone” at temperatures between 40 and 140°F.
When you cook your food, be sure to prepare it at the right temperature as well. Enough heat can kill bad bacteria and prevent foodborne illness. Meat thermometers are very helpful for making sure your meat is cooked thoroughly and safely. You can’t always judge a food’s doneness by its appearance. To be safe, chicken should be cooked at 165°F, hamburgers and beef at 160°F, and fish and pork at 145°F.
3) Avoid food sharing
In addition to food poisoning, communal food sharing also increases your risk of other serious illnesses like COVID-19. Avoid containers of food like bowls of chips or brownie plates that multiple people could contaminate through touch. Instead, opt for individually packaged items like snack-sized chip bags and individually wrapped sweets. And it’s not just food that needs to be individually contained.
“Say you have all the forks in one container, but everyone is picking up utensils and touching them. It is best to have them individually wrapped,” said Gale Pearson, a registered dietitian and certified diabetes educator at TPMG Nutrition Services. Drinks can also be individually contained as opposed to punch bowls or other communal drinking appliances. Make sure you create enough space for safe distancing as well. Set up separate drink, food, and utensil stations to avoid crowded tables
4) Separate raw food from cooked food
Raw meat can carry harmful bacteria that can spread to other surfaces and foods if you are not careful. There are multiple ways to transfer bacteria. A general rule of thumb is to keep raw food as far away from other food as possible. Don’t prepare raw foods on the same surfaces as your other food and once you cook the meat, make sure it goes on a new, clean tray. Don’t use the same utensils for raw and regular food. If you’re transporting raw food, keep it in a separate cooler from your other food to avoid dripping or cross-contamination. If you notice your food has been contaminated, it’s best to throw it out rather than taking the risk.
5) Arrive Early.
“Perishable foods should not be kept out more than two hours,” said Gale. If you know how long the food will be left out at the picnic, plan to eat earlier rather than later to avoid bacteria growth. Showing up earlier can also give you a better idea of how long the food has been left out.
The signs of food poisoning are easy to miss. Oftentimes people can dismiss the symptoms as a bad stomach ache or cramps, but it’s important to pay attention to your body and your symptoms in the event that your case of food poisoning is more serious than you think. People react to food poisoning differently. For some, it can cause abdominal cramps or vomiting and diarrhea. For others, food poisoning can cause a mild fever or headache. Normally, these symptoms will happen quickly, usually within hours of eating contaminated food, and can last from a few hours to several days. If you have blood in the urine, high fever or diarrhea lasting more than two days you should consult a professional for help.
Food poisoning doesn’t have to ruin your day. With proper preparation and execution, you can enjoy a safe and fun picnic outdoors with your friends and family. To learn more about safe and healthy meal choices, consult a TPMG dietician today.
Gale Pearson, MS, RDN, CDCES is a Registered Dietitian and Certified Diabetes Educator with over 25 years of experience working with patients on dietary and nutrition wellness planning. Gale received her undergraduate degree from Hampton University and her Master of Science in Nutrition and Dietetics from Howard University.
With extensive experience in nutrition counseling, Gale works with her patients to develop strategies to improve their eating habits and lifestyles, in turn helping them to manage their weight and medical conditions. She credits witnessing her patients’ symptoms and overall health improvement as a result of the lifestyle changes as one of the most gratifying and rewarding aspects of her career.
At TPMG Nutrition Services in Newport News and Williamsburg, Gale provides one-on-one consultations, nutrition and weight management counseling, and diabetes education.