USDA: ‘Don’t let your outdoor meal become a feast for bacteria’

For many in the ag community, these food safety tips might be common knowledge. However, taking the extra precaution is worth avoiding a ‘spoiled’ summertime outing!

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There’s nothing quite as idyllic as a lovely picnic at the park on a warm summer day. Unless you consume food that was not kept at the proper temperature or is incorrectly wrapped, which could put you and your family at risk of developing foodborne illnesses caused by harmful bacteria. For many in the ag community, these food safety tips might be common knowledge, but taking the extra steps to avoid a ‘spoiled’ summertime outing is worth it!

“USDA reminds summer travelers not to let your outdoor meal become a feast for bacteria,” said USDA Under Secretary for Food Safety Dr. Emilio Esteban. “Bacteria grow faster during the summer months because it’s warmer and more humid. Pack perishable foods safely with a cold source and wash your hands thoroughly while preparing food.”

These mistakes are easy to make—like packing prepared foods in the same cooler with drinks, washing your hands in a stream before, or packing a turkey sandwich instead of a PB&J for your day hike. But eating bacteria-laden foods is even easier to do unintentionally in the summer, thanks to the heat and humidity, which help harmful bacteria thrive!

The USDA says there are four things you can do to enjoy a food-poisoning-free summer--avoid the “danger zone,” properly pack your cooler for road trips, lean on shelf-stable items for camping and backpacking, and, as always, wash your hands often.

Avoiding the “Danger Zone”

Food kept below 40 degrees Fahrenheit and heated above 140 degrees Fahrenheit (or 165 degrees, in the case of poultry products) are the least likely to rapidly grow harmful bacteria that can make you sick when consumed. When food sustains or fluctuates into temperatures within this range for an extended period, there is only a limited time amount of time before can be consumed before it’s considered unsafe to eat.

According to the USDA, food should only be left out for two hours before it’s refrigerated again or put into a well-insulated cooler. The temperature outside is also a huge factor in food safety – if the temperature is over 90 degrees, food sitting out should be refrigerated or thrown out after only one hour. The USDA also recommends:

  • Remember to refrigerate perishable food within two hours, and within one hour if it’s a hot day (above 90 F).
  • Keep cold foods at 40 F or below by keeping food nestled in ice on the picnic table or in a cooler until ready to serve.
  • Keep hot foods at 140 F or above by placing food in warming trays or on the grill.
  • Divide leftovers into smaller portions, place them inside small containers, and keep them in a cooler below 40 F.

Keep it ‘Cool’ with a Well-Packed Cooler

Properly packing your cooler is one of the best ways to hold food at safe temperatures for the longest amount of time possible. Packing foods that are frozen will also extend the time they will keep inside your cooler.

Experts say fully-packed coolers hold their temperature much better than a half-full cooler. So if there is extra space in yours once packed, fill it with additional ice or ice packs to keep the food from spoiling.

The USDA also warns that it’s important to store prepared foods in a separate cooler from drinks. Since drink coolers are opened over and over throughout the day, the internal temperature will fluctuate (and eventually rise) much faster, which will eventually prove unsafe for perishable foods.

If you’ve been using the same cooler for years, check to make sure it’s in perfect working order before you take it out in the heat. If not, consider using it for just carrying drinks and non-perishable items and investing in a new cooler with modern features that will ensure the cooler remains properly sealed and hold its temperature longer.

Camping or Backpacking? Avoid Perishables!

If you’re going to be out in the elements for more than a few hours—especially when temperatures are over 90 degrees — reduce the risk of a rough night in the woods by only packing non-perishable and shelf-stable items that are properly sealed. Keep in mind: smoked meats and deli meats are specifically susceptible to bacteria growth and should be avoided unless refrigerated or heated properly until they are consumed.

Some of the USDA’s recommended shelf-stable options include:

  • pre-packaged, shelf-stable meals
  • peanut butter in plastic jars
  • concentrated juice boxes
  • canned tuna, ham, chicken, and beef
  • dried noodles and soups
  • beef jerky and other shelf-stable meats
  • dehydrated foods
  • whole or dried fruits
  • nuts
  • powdered milk and fruit drinks

Another important way to protect yourself (and your food!) is to ensure it is properly packed and stored securely so it is not accessible to wildlife.

Wash Your Hands!

You should always wash your hands before you eat a meal, but the process is all the more important after you’ve been spending time outside and your exposure to all sorts of new and potentially-harmful bacteria increases exponentially. So, just in case, do not forget to bring along some hand sanitizer!

There are a few other wildcards to consider when you’re out in the elements (like not having access to clean, running water!) that the USDA wants to make sure you plan for:

  • If running water is available, follow proper handwashing steps to stop bacteria from spreading from your hands to your meal. Make sure to wet your hands, lather with soap, scrub for 20 seconds, rinse, and dry.
  • If no running water is available, use hand sanitizer or moist towelettes that contain at least 60 percent alcohol.
  • Do not use water from streams and rivers. The water is untreated and not safe for drinking.

Have a great time enjoying meals outside this summer!

Marion is a digital content manager for RFD-TV and The Cowboy Channel. She started working for Rural Media Group in May 2022, bringing a decade of experience in the digital side of broadcast media as well as some professional cooking experience to the team.