Monday, June 2, 2008

Serve Up Safe Summer Picnics and Cookouts

With summer upon us, cookout and picnic season has begun for many families. But if you're not careful, harmful organisms can find their way into your picnic basket, according to a Penn State Cooperative Extension foods and nutrition expert. "Bacteria that you cannot see, taste or smell would love to crash your summer get-togethers," says Mandel Smith, family and consumer sciences extension educator in Montgomery County.

"Bacteria thrive at temperatures between 40 and 140 degrees F," Smith explains. "This is called the temperature danger zone. Food that is mishandled, transported without an adequate ice source, or left out in the sun at a picnic or cookout can be the perfect place for bacteria to grow. Friends and family members who eat unsafe food can develop flu-like symptoms caused by foodborne illness."

But, Smith notes, there are simple steps you can take to keep your cookout and picnic food safe:
--If there is not a source of safe drinking water at your picnic or cookout site, bring water along for preparation and cleaning. "Always wash hands before and after handling food," Smith advises.
--Don't use the same platter and utensils for raw and cooked meat and poultry. "Pack lots of clean utensils, not only for eating, but also for serving food," she says.
--Keep your perishable food in a cooler. Even inexpensive foam coolers can keep food cool for hours. "Pre-chill your cooler before packing it by filling the cooler with ice or ice water and allowing it to stand for an hour," Smith says. "Pre-chilling will help your foods stay cooler longer. In warm weather, do not put the cooler in your car's trunk -- instead, carry it inside the air-conditioned car. At the picnic, keep the cooler in the shade." Smith also recommends using a separate cooler for drinks so the cooler containing perishable food is not constantly opened and closed.
--Allow plenty of time to thaw frozen meat and poultry for cookouts and picnics. Smith suggests taking the meat or poultry out of the freezer and placing it on a refrigerator shelf a night or two before you need it. "Never thaw meat or poultry on the kitchen counter," she says. "Bacteria can multiply dangerously in the outer layers before the inner areas are thawed. If meat is still partially frozen when you're ready to leave, just cook it a little longer on the grill."
--Cook everything thoroughly. "Hamburger patties, pork chops and ribs should be cooked to an internal temperature of 160 degrees F," she explains. "Poultry needs to be cooked to 180 degrees. Fresh fish should be cooked until it flakes with a fork. Steaks must be cooked to at least 145 degrees F."
--If you plan to purchase take-out foods such as fried chicken or barbecued beef, the food should be eaten within two hours of pickup, according to Smith.

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