By Chrystal Okonta, MSPH, CHES
USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service
It’s a challenge to keep your food safe when having meals outdoors during warmer weather. Cases of food poisoning tend to spike during the summer as temperatures rise. Food poisoning happens when you eat or drink something with harmful germs in it. Germs that cause food poisoning grow more quickly when food is left at room temperature or warmer, which can happen at picnics and cookouts. During pregnancy, food poisoning can cause serious problems for you and your baby, including premature birth, miscarriage and stillbirth. When you prepare meals outside for you and your family, keep the four steps to food safety in mind.
How can you and your family keep your hands, surfaces, and utensils clean, even when you’re not near a kitchen sink? It’s best to use soap and running water to wash hands. If soap and water is unavailable, use hand sanitizer with at least 60 percent alcohol in it, or sanitizing wipes. Clean your hands before and after preparing your food, before you eat, and especially after handling any baby messes.
Hand sanitizer works best when your hands are free of dirt and grime. To use it properly, make sure you use enough sanitizer to reach all parts of your hands. Rub it in well on your palms, the backs of your hands, and on and between each finger. Continue to rub the sanitizer until it dries on its own.
Keep foods separate, especially when packing a cooler. Raw meat and poultry should be kept separate from ready-to-eat foods like vegetables and salads, in separate coolers if possible. You can also wrap raw meat and poultry well and store it at the bottom of your cooler. At the grill, use separate utensils and plates – one set for raw meat and poultry, and one for cooked foods.
Use a separate cooler for beverages, since it’s opened more often than coolers for food. You may want to keep prepared infant formula or breast milk in a separate cooler as well to make sure it stays cold.
Don’t eat raw or undercooked meat, pork, poultry, fish or shellfish. Use a food thermometer to make sure grilled foods reach a safe internal temperature. You can’t tell if meat or poultry is done by color or touch. A food thermometer is the only way to know your grilled foods are safe to eat. Cook them to the following temperatures:
- Whole cuts of meat, steaks or chops – 145 F with a 3-minute rest time
- Ground beef burgers – 160 F
- All poultry, including chicken wings or turkey burgers – 165 F
- Hot dogs – reheat to 165 F or until steaming hot
After you finish grilling, you can leave the grill on low heat and close the cover to keep your cooked foods warm (above 140 F) while you’re eating. Otherwise, they are only safe off the grill for 1 hour during hot weather. Any longer than that, and they should be thrown away.
Prepared and cold foods can make outdoor gatherings a success, but take extra care to keep them chilled in the hot weather. Pack coolers full of ice, ice packs, or other cold sources, and keep them closed and in the shade as much as possible. An appliance thermometer can confirm your cooler stays below 40 F.
Don’t leave food at room temperature for long. It’s only safe for two hours before it should be chilled or thrown away. Keep cold foods in the cooler and only take out what you need so it stays safe. When temperatures are above 90 F, food is only safe out of the cooler for 1 hour.
If you have an infant, keep breastmilk or baby formula cold. Once formula is made, it’s safe for up to 2 hours, or 1 hour once feeding starts. Throw away any unused formula or breastmilk after feeding.
Follow these four food safety tips to have safe, healthy, and family-friendly summer outings!