It’s the perfect time for a summer picnic. But if you’re planning an alfresco feast, keep food safety in the outdoors in mind. The last thing you want is to turn a special occasion into a sickening one.
The most common foodborne illnesses are caused by pathogenic E coli, Campylobacter, Hepatitis A and Salmonella. They reach their peak in the summer period because they thrive in food sitting in the warm sun and humid air.
Seventy per cent of foodborne illnesses result from food served outside of people’s homes. So for that picnic, barbeque or camping trip, ensure your food will be served fresh, and most importantly safe.
Here are some tips to help you keep your food safe when dining outdoors this season.
1. Use fresh and safe food
The fresher the food you take from home, the greater the chance it will stay that way during your outing. If you’re not sure whether to take that meat you defrosted a few days ago, it’s best to avoid it. Buy fresh vegetables and fruit for your salads. Buy fresh meat well before its use-by date and bring it home as soon as possible (under two hours). Also remember to keep it refrigerated until you leave home.
2. Slice ‘n dice portions
Try to minimise handling meat outdoors as there could be fewer hygiene measures on hand. Portion meat at home or buy just what you need.
Prepare fresh salads so you only need to add dressing at the point of consumption. Pre-cut salad items and fruit can be more vulnerable to contamination or growth of microorganisms than whole produce. So it is important to transport them cold in an Esky if pre-cut.
Desserts should ideally also be pre-portioned to avoid additional handling when you’re out.
3. Potentially hazardous foods
Food Standards Australia and New Zealand categorises food which requires temperature control at all times as potentially hazardous.
The list of potentially hazardous foods is long. It includes raw and cooked meat, seafood, dairy products, foods containing eggs, desserts and sprouted seeds. Also prepared fruits and vegetables, cooked rice, fresh and cooked pasta, and items that contain combinations of foods such as sandwiches, pizzas and rice rolls. These foods should be kept cold at all times. If they’re pre-packaged, don’t open them before using them on your day out. This way you can ensure they won’t be exposed to outside sources of contamination.
Any opened item from your fridge, such as a carton of milk, a pack of deli meat or a bottle of mayonnaise will already have some microbial growth. Taking it along on a picnic increases the chances of it reaching dangerous levels of microorganisms thanks to warm and humid conditions.
4. Ice, ice baby
Pack your food in a cooler bag, a box filled with ice or a pre-refrigerated Esky. Do not put raw meat on top of ready to eat food as it may leak and cause cross-contamination. This goes for storing food in your fridge too. Preferably pack raw meat and ready to eat foods in separate bags. Keep your Esky in the cool part of your vehicle, where the cold air-conditioned air circulates.
5. Nab a top spot
If you intend to prepare food at your destination, aim to go where there are handwashing facilities. Take soap to wash your hands just in case. If there are no handwashing facilities there, take plenty of water, soap and hand sanitiser.
6. Gloves – stop contamination getting out of hand
You might think gloves will protect your food from harmful bacteria. However, they can cross-contaminate food in the same way as your hands. Gloves create a barrier between your skin and the food, but they touch food the same as your hands do. Therefore, touching raw meat before preparing a salad is not a good idea even when wearing gloves. It’s best to use clean gloves.
7. Two tongs (or more) make a right
Take enough tongs and utensils to avoid touching too many foods. Use different utensils for putting fresh meat on the barbeque, for handling cooked meat and for serving salad. If you only have one pair of tongs available, wash them thoroughly with water and detergent before using again.
8. Chop it like it’s hot
Take a handheld thermometer to check the temperature of barbequed meat. The New South Wales Food Authority recommends 63°C as the minimum internal temperature for beef, veal, lamb and pork and 74°C for chicken.
9. Highway to the danger zone
When it comes to food safety, you need to be aware of the ‘danger zone’. It’s between 5°C and 60°C, above refrigeration and below steaming temperatures. This is when bacteria are most likely to be having a picnic on your food. Food left in the danger zone for four hours or longer should be thrown out.
If you’ve left any food like fresh or cooked meat, cut salads, sliced fruit and desserts in the danger zone during your outing don’t take them home. If you have kept meat cold or at ambient temperature for less than two hours, you can take it home, store it for maximum of four days and reheat to 75°C.
10. Serve an ace
You have made all these efforts to prepare and handle the food safely. All you have to do now is enjoy.
For more food safety outdoors tips, find out if the ‘sniff test‘ is an adequate barometer of freshness.
9th January 2022 at 11:42 am
I’m curious about viruses such as Hepatitis A and norovirus on food. I thought viruses couldn’t multiply outside their host. Your article implies they grow on food in warm temperatures. Please clarify.
10th January 2022 at 2:52 pm
Hi Sally, thanks for your comment. You are right that viruses need a host cell to multiply. While warm and humid conditions may not directly lead to viral multiplication, they may lead to better conditions for transmission and in that context, some viruses could thrive better in summer conditions. In our article, we mention that Hepatitis A has had an increased incidence in summer and this is based on Australian surveillance data (https://www1.health.gov.au/internet/main/publishing.nsf/Content/5C71FABF639650F6CA2586520081286B/%24File/monitoring_the_incidence_and_causes_of_disease_potentially_transmitted_by_food_in_australia_annual_report_of_the_ozfoodnet_network_2016.pdf).
Norovirus, for example, is known as the cause of winter gastroenteritis, thus the seasonal effect does not apply equally to all viruses. However, the growth rate of bacteria as causative agents of severe foodborne illnesses is definitely impacted by temperature: an increase in growth rate is notable with an increase in temperature when the food is in the “danger zone” as per our article.