From beach picnic spreads to backyard cookouts, summertime beckons us to pack up coolers, break out paper plates and dine in the sunshine with family and friends. But on days when the mercury climbs especially high, you could end up with a few uninvited guests: meet salmonella, listeria, E. coli and norovirus. These party-crashing bacteria flourish in our humid summers, especially when temperatures reach 90 to 110 degrees. The Centers for Disease Control estimates that one in six people encounter foodborne illness each year, with cases peaking during the summer months. This unappetizing “food poisoning” elicits flu-like symptoms such as nausea, cramping, vomiting, diarrhea and fever. Let’s unpack a few food safety pointers to keep your picnic fresh:
• The USDA calls 40 to 140°F the “danger zone” for foodborne illness, since bacteria populations can double in a mere 20 minutes within this range. When the thermometer registers below 90°F, perishable foods can safely hang out unrefrigerated for two hours, after which they should go back into the cooler, fridge or freezer.
• When temps reach higher than 90°F, the time frame for perishables gets cut in half, and foods should be tucked back in the cooler within one hour. Remember that direct sunlight causes the heat index to spike by as much as 15 degrees. Our suggestion? Set a cell phone alarm or bring along an egg timer to signal when it’s time to put food away.
• Reserve about 25 percent of your cooler space for ice packs. When possible, chill or freeze foods prior to packing. We also recommend including a small thermometer to ensure your cooler’s interior stays a frosty 40°F or below.
• Thirst strikes frequently as you play in the sun, so place beverages in a separate cooler to help keep a lid on the food cooler. Want ice in your cup? Pack cubes in a sealed bag or container rather than dipping into the loose cooler ice, which can pick up germs from food containers, beverage packaging and hands digging for drinks.