Food Safety: Packing Picnics for Healthy Summer Fun

When you pack a picnic lunch, you want to bring sandwiches, salads and munchies not E. coli, Salmonella or Listeria. Here are some food safety tips that are especially important in summer when warmer temperatures allow bacteria to reproduce rapidly.

Bring Food Home Cold

The first rule is to keep food cold. No food should be at room temperature for more than 2 hours. The clock starts ticking as soon as you put a pork tenderloin into your grocery cart and doesn’t stop until you put it in your home refrigerator.

Watching the time is especially crucial in the summer because at warmer temperatures, bacteria growth doubles. The USDA calls temperatures between 40 and 140 degrees “the danger zone,” because they’re ideal for bacterial growth.

At 90 degrees, the USDA gives you only an hour before the food is compromised. Your car that’s been baking in the parking lot? It’s the ideal incubator for bacteria. Think twice before making “one more stop” on your way home from the grocery store.

Cooking Doesn’t Get Rid of Everything Bad

If you had “one of those days” and your food stayed in the danger zone for more than 2 hours, you can’t undo the damage by cooking your food. According to Christopher Koetke, dean of the School of Culinary Arts at Kendall College in Chicago, heat will kill the bacteria, but that isn’t the only thing you have to worry about.

Unfortunately, the bacteria isn’t the only danger, he says. The poisons produced by bacteria are heat stable, and they can also make you sick.

So if you’ve left that pork tenderloin sitting in your car or on the counter for a little too long, cooking itâeven to the recommended temperatureâmight not make it safe.

Keep Food Cool and Separate

The final step is to transport everything safely to your picnic:

  • Pack raw meat separately.
  • Use a cooler and ice packs to keep food colder than 40 degrees.
  • Put the cooler in a shady spot.
  • Keep drinks in a separate cooler so opening and closing the lid won’t lower the temperature.

Eating outside on a warm day is one of the joys of summer. With just a few simple precautions, you can keep your picnic foods fresh and safe. For more information on summer food safety, check out the USDA’s information sheets.