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Safe Picnics

Posted: July 8, 2014 5:04 p.m.
Updated: July 9, 2014 5:00 a.m.

"There are always ants at a picnic." You can see ants and avoid them, but it’s not possible to see, taste or smell dangerous bacteria that can cause illness if food is mishandled. Bacteria grow and multiply rapidly in the danger zone between 40 ºF and 140 ºF. Food transported without an adequate ice source or left out in the sun at a picnic won’t stay safe for long. Family and friends who eat mishandled food may get the flu-like symptoms caused by foodborne illness.

Follow these tips for packing food safely for a picnic.

Try to plan just the right amount of foods to take. That way, you will not have to worry about the storage or safety of leftovers.

Clean preparation is essential. Wash hands and work areas; be sure all utensils are clean before preparing food.

Foods to be cooked ahead should be cooked in plenty of time to chill them thoroughly in the refrigerator. Use an insulated cooler with sufficient ice or ice packs to keep the food at 40 ºF. Pack food from the refrigerator right into the cooler.

If you are planning on take-out foods such as fried chicken or barbecued beef, eat them within two hours of pick-up or buy ahead of time and chill before packing the foods into the cooler.

Overwrap raw meat packages, or place in plastic bags and pack in a cooler separately from ready-to-eat foods to prevent cross-contamination.

In warm weather, do not put a cooler in the trunk; carry it inside the air-conditioned car.

At the picnic, keep the cooler in the shade. Keep the lid closed and avoid repeated openings. Replenish the ice if it melts.

Use a separate cooler for drinks so the one containing perishable food will not be constantly opened and closed.

Except when it is being served, the food should be stored in a cooler.

When handling raw meat, remove from the cooler only the amount that will fit on the grill. The U.S. Department of Agriculture recommends against eating raw or undercooked ground beef since harmful bacteria could be present.

To be sure bacteria are destroyed, cook hamburgers and ribs to 160 ºF (medium doneness). Cook all poultry to 165 ºF. Reheat pre-cooked meats until steaming hot.

Do not partially grill extra hamburgers to use later. Once you begin cooking hamburgers by any method, cook them until completely done to assure that bacteria are destroyed.

When taking foods off the grill, put them on a clean plate to avoid cross-contamination. Do not put the cooked items on the same platter that held the raw meat.

Place leftover foods in the cooler promptly after serving. Any food left outside for more than an hour should be discarded. If there is still ice in the cooler when you get home, the leftovers are okay to eat.

Traveling With Food

Many families enjoy taking food along on trips for picnics and to keep little stomachs (and mouths) full while driving in the car. However, improperly stored food could result in an unwanted vacation souvenir — foodborne illness. Packing and storing food with food safety in mind can prevent this vacation disaster, and it is not that difficult. Just remember the "Five Rules of Traveling with Food."

Plan Ahead

A well-stocked cooler is a must! Have plenty of ice or frozen gel-packs on hand before you start packing.

What to take? Some foods don’t require refrigeration — peanut butter and jelly and some cheeses, for example. Perishable foods, like meat, poultry, eggs and fish do require refrigeration, so if you are taking summer salads, making sandwiches on the road, or bringing food to cook over the course of your vacation, plan to keep them on ice in your cooler throughout the trip.

Pack Safely

Pack perishables directly from the refrigerator to the cooler. You can pack meat and poultry while it is still frozen. It will thaw during the trip, extending its safety and shelf life.

A full cooler will maintain its cold temperature longer than one that is only partially filled. Pack the remaining space with more ice or with fruit and non- perishable foods.

Securely wrap or bag foods that may drip or leak, particularly raw meat, poultry or fish. Keep these from contact with ready-to-eat foods or beverages.

For longer trips take two coolers, one for the day’s lunch and snacks, the other for perishables to be used later. Keep big and little hands out of the perishables cooler.

Preserve the Cold

Put the cooler in the passenger section of the car instead of in the hot trunk. Frequently opening the cooler will cause the inside temperature to decrease. Preserve the cold temperature of the cooler by replenishing the ice as soon as it starts melting.

Pitch the Warm

Pitch any foods that warm above refrigerator temperature (40 °F). Food poisoning bacteria grow rapidly at warm temperatures. At the end of the day, if the ice has melted and the food feels warm, discard any meat or poultry left over. Non-perishables like fruits, vegetables, breads and drinks do not require refrigeration and should be okay.

Keep Hands & Utensils Clean

Protect your family from disease-causing bacteria by keeping hands and utensils clean. If soap and water will not be available, pack some moist towelettes. Bag and set aside dishes and utensils to wash with hot soapy water when you reach your destination.

Packing food for the trip is a money-and time-saver for today’s road warriors. Resealable bottles of juice or sodas are more economical than individual cans or bottles. Bring a plastic cup for each member of the family. Store ice for drinks in a leak-proof, resealable container in the cooler. After lunch, repack the cooler with non-perishables to fill it up.

For more ideas on food safety and nutrition, contact the Kershaw County Extension Office at 803-432 9071 or visit the Clemson University Home and Garden Information Center website at for additional information and fact sheets.

Clemson University Cooperative Extension Service offers its programs to people of all ages, regardless of race, color, gender, religion, national origin, disability, political beliefs, sexual orientation, marital or family status and is an equal opportunity employer.


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