Late summer is a favorite season for picnics, barbecues, and cookouts. It’s a great way to enjoy the last warm days of the year and spend time with family and friends. But with the festivity of outdoor dining comes a risk: food poisoning.
Today we’ll look at the biggest culprits of foodborne illness, what causes it, how to avoid it, and more. Follow these guidelines to make the most of your picnics without having to worry about accidentally poisoning yourself or others.
What Causes Food Poisoning?
Food poisoning is a general term applied to several ailments caused by contaminated or spoiled foods. The CDC estimates that 48 million illnesses are caused by foodborne pathogens each year, leading to 128,000 hospitalizations, and 3,000 deaths.1
The culprit is usually one of several types of viruses or bacteria, but sometimes the cause is a mold, toxin, parasite, or other contaminants. Here are the most common sources of foodborne illness, their symptoms, onset, and sources, according to the CDC:2,3
Norovirus (58% of food poisoning)
- Causes diarrhea, nausea/stomach pain, vomiting
- Symptoms start in 12 – 48 hours
- Sources include infected persons, contaminated food like leafy greens, fresh fruits, shellfish (such as oysters), or water, or by touching contaminated surfaces
Salmonella (11% of food poisoning)
- Causes diarrhea, fever, stomach cramps, vomiting
- Symptoms start in 12 – 72 hours
- Sources include eggs, raw or undercooked poultry or meat, unpasteurized milk or juice, cheese, raw fruits and vegetables
Clostridium perfringens (10% of food poisoning)
- Causes diarrhea, stomach cramps. Vomiting and fever are uncommon. Usually begins suddenly and lasts for less than 24 hours
- Symptoms start in 6 – 24 hours
- Sources include beef or poultry, especially large roasts; gravies; dried or precooked foods
Campylobacter (9% of food poisoning)
- Causes diarrhea (often bloody), stomach cramps/pain, fever
- Symptoms start in 2 – 5 days
- Sources include raw or undercooked poultry, raw (unpasteurized) milk, and contaminated water
These pathogens can contaminate foods in a variety of ways:
- Production – Contamination during farming or growth of the food, as could happen to eggs in the henhouse or crops in the field
- Processing – Such as a faulty pasteurization, or cross contamination in a processing facility
- Distribution – If food isn’t kept at safe temperatures during transit, bacteria can grow or foods can become contaminated by other pathogens
- Unsafe Preparation – Food prepared by unwashed hands, that comes in contact with someone carrying a pathogen, undercooked food, food kept at improper temperature, or food left out too long
The first three stages are out of your control, but keeping an eye out for recalls and buying from trusted producers is a good way to minimize the risk. Preparation is where we have the most ability to avoid contamination and protect ourselves. Picnics and barbecues create a prime opportunity for lapses in food safety, so those events require special attention.
Food poisoning is caused by foodborne pathogens like norovirus and salmonella that contaminate foods at some point before consumption. We have the best chance of protecting ourselves by taking special care with food preparation.
How To Keep Food Safe From Pathogens
At home, it’s relatively easy to ensure that food is safe to eat. There’s a refrigerator close by to keep foods cold, and you can eat hot dishes fresh from the oven. In your home kitchen, you wouldn’t make egg salad and leave it out on the counter for three hours before serving it to your family. But when we leave that familiar context, it can be easy to ignore our good sense when it comes to food safety.
Here are some rules to remember when you’re eating or cooking outdoors.
1. Cook Meats Thoroughly
A barbecue is a fun time to treat yourself to a moderate serving of meat. But it’s important to be sure that your meat is cooked thoroughly and to the appropriate temperature. Undercooked meat is a leading culprit of food poisoning, including sometimes deadly salmonella and listeria.
Always use a meat thermometer and follow these guidelines:
- 145°F for beef, veal, lamb, and fish
- 145°F for pork and ham
- 160°F for ground meats including ground beef, ground pork, ground veal, and ground lamb
- 160°F for egg dishes
- 165°F for poultry (chicken, turkey, duck), including ground chicken and ground turkey
- 165°F for casseroles
Be sure that raw meats, and all utensils and surfaces used to prepare them, remain entirely separate from all other food. Pack plenty of extra utensils and use separate containers and cutting surfaces for raw meats.
One surefire way to avoid this risk is to make a delicious and healthy meatless patty
for your grilling!
Cook meats to the appropriate temperatures and avoid cross-contaminating raw meats with ready-to-eat foods via surfaces and utensils.
2. Avoid The Danger Zone
Bacteria grow best between 40 and 140 degrees. Safety experts call that window the danger zone because if foods are allowed to sit at those temperatures, they’re far more likely to grow large amounts of dangerous bacteria.
Keep your cold foods cold (below 40 degrees) and your hot foods hot (above 140 degrees) until serving them. Even foods that you might consider servable at room temperature, like a potato salad or cut fruit, should be kept cold to prevent the growth of bacteria. Bring an ice chest to store these items, or put ice packs under their containers.
Keep hot foods in separate insulated containers to maintain temperature. For grilled foods, keep them on the side of the grill, so they stay hot without overcooking. You can also use chafing dishes, warming trays, or slow cookers to keep foods hot before serving.
Be sure to keep foods below 40 or above 140 degrees until serving. If they’re sitting between those temperatures, they’re far more likely to grow dangerous bacteria.
3. Don’t Leave Food Sitting Out
Don’t leave foods out for too long. No matter whether it’s served hot, cold or at room temperature, after two hours food must be refrigerated to avoid contamination. If the air temperature is greater than 90 degrees, the limit is one hour. Food quickly warms up or cools down to within prime bacteria-growing temperature (the danger zone), so don’t leave it out long enough for that process to get started. Once food has been out for two hours, it must either be refrigerated to bring it back down below 40 degrees or else, it must be thrown out.
There are some baked goods, like cookies or crackers, that don’t require refrigeration. If it’s a variety of food you keep in the pantry even after being opened, then the same storage rules apply here. But keeping those items covered can help protect them from environmental contaminants, stray sneezes, and hungry squirrels!
Don’t leave food out longer than two hours, and if it’s hotter than 90 degrees the limit is one hour. If you can't get food back below the danger zone threshold of 40 degrees before the two-hour mark, it is safest to throw it out.
4. Serve Safely
Cross-contamination is a significant risk factor, especially if you’re cooking meats. Be sure that any utensils and surfaces that come in contact with raw meat are sealed away in their containers afterward so that they don’t accidentally come into contact with ready-to-eat foods.
Be sure that you have serving utensils for all of your dishes. Dedicated serving utensils and dishes will also protect people with allergies or food sensitivities from having their favorite dish tainted by allergens or irritants.
Bringing dish detergent and hand sanitizer is a great way to ensure that you can wash utensils for reuse and keep your hands clean. Encourage guests to use hand sanitizer, especially if there are finger foods.
Keep raw meats and anything that touches them away from other foods and surfaces. Bring plenty of serving utensils so that dishes don’t cross contaminate- and so that people don’t use their utensils to serve themselves. Having hand sanitizer and soap can allow you to wash hands and utensils.
5. Transport Tips
Make sure you have a way to keep your food on either side of the danger zone during transit. Insulated containers are useful for keeping hot foods hot and cold foods cold, but you should have separate containers for each.
A cooler of ice or frozen cold packs is a great way to ensure that your food stays safe until you reach your destination. Otherwise, the two hour limit for leaving foods at room temperature begins as soon as they’re out of the oven or the refrigerator and includes all travel time.
Keep foods in a cooler with ice or cold packs in transit to ensure that they stay fresh and safe.
Enjoy The Last Days Of Summer Fully And Safely!
Outdoor dining events offer many bone health benefits. Direct sunlight allows your body to produce Vitamin D, social events can have a positive impact on mood and energy, and picnics and grills offer great opportunities for serving bone-smart meals. Freshly grilled vegetables, bean salads, veggie skewers, watermelon slices — the possibilities are endless.
By following these best practices for food safety, you can leave worries about food poisoning behind and enjoy yourself.
1 Foodborne Illnesses and Germs. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. February 16, 2018. Web. https://www.cdc.gov/foodsafety/foodborne-germs.html
2 Elaine Scallan, et al. “Foodborne Illness Acquired in the United States—Major Pathogens.” Volume 17, Number 1—January 2011. Web. https://wwwnc.cdc.gov/eid/article/17/1/p1-1101_article
3 Food Poisoning Symptoms. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. April 19, 2018. Web. https://www.cdc.gov/foodsafety/symptoms.html