Now that summer has finally arrived, many of us are gearing up for the warm weather traditions of picnics, family reunions and barbecues. These activities give good reason for paying attention to the issues of summer food safety. No one wants to bring a food item to the company picnic that is going to make people sick. Two of the most important elements to keep in mind when preparing and serving food are time and temperature. Protein-rich foods such as fried chicken, baked beans, deviled eggs, ham or roast beef, and cream pies need to be handled carefully in order to remain safe to eat. The standard rule is that hot foods must be kept hot and cold foods must be kept cold. The dangerous temperature zone for food is between 40 F. and 140 F. The fastest growth of microorganisms occurs between 60-120 F. Do not keep foods at this temperature zone for more than 2-3 hours. Also, realize that time is accumulative when it comes to storing food. If you transport food for the family gathering in a warm car for 1 hour and then refrigerate it at grandmas for the picnic tomorrow, you only have 1-2 hours remaining for the food to be out in the temperature danger zone before it becomes unsafe.

Here are some good food safety tips. When shopping, take along an ice chest with ice and purchase perishable foods at the end your shopping. You can make your own ice pack by freezing water in a milk carton. Don’t leave your cooler in a hot car, and always try to keep coolers in the shade when at the meal site. Have a separate ice chest for drinks, since it is opened often and will heat up faster than coolers that are left closed until ready to serve the food. Cleanliness is critical when preparing or handling food, so hand washing is a must. If clean running water is not available, take along a jug of water and soap so everyone can adequately wash hands. At the very least, disposable hand wipes could be used if no water is available. Be sure to wash raw fruits and vegetables at home or at the picnic, since microorganisms can cling to them. Cut melons and vegetables should be kept on ice.

If you are barbecuing, avoid cross contamination by keeping raw meats away from other foods, and never use the same utensil to handle raw and cooked meat. Wash hands well after any handling of raw meats. Make sure the meats you are cooking reach the appropriate safe temperature. It is always best to use an instant read thermometer. Ground meats and hot dogs must reach a temperature of 160 F, steaks and roasts to 145 F, fish and shellfish to 145 F, and all poultry to 165 F.

Now, about those leftovers. Remember, foods should not be held in the temperature danger zone for more than 2-3 hours, so put it back in the cooler as soon as you are finished eating. If perishable foods have not been kept at the right temperature, don’t try to save them for another meal at home. Stay safe by remembering, “When in doubt, throw it out.”

For more information on food safety, see https://www.foodsafety.gov/keep/index.html.

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