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The sun is shining on a bright, warm, and cloudless day. Images of potato salad, watermelon, hot dogs, and hamburgers inevitably come to mind – summer simply wouldn’t be the same without a picnic or barbeque. Unfortunately, what begins as a relaxing day at the park often ends in foodborne illness.
According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), “each year roughly 1 in 6 Americans (or 48 million people) get sick, 128,000 are hospitalized, and 3,000 die of foodborne diseases.” In fact, the CDC reports that by reducing instances of foodborne illness by just 10%, a whopping 5 million Americans would be prevented from becoming sick.

Taking just a few minutes to learn about safe food-handling before heading out the door, can mean the difference between a day to remember, and one you’d rather forget.


Food temperature and improper food handling are the two primary instigators in the promotion of bacteria growth and viruses in food.

Picnic food is particularly challenging, because it is handled a lot both in preparation and eating (think lunch meat, burger patties, and macaroni salad). It also requires transportation (often in a hot car), and is often left out either during preparation and at the actual event. When food remains at the wrong temperature for too long it becomes contaminated. Add in the challenges accompanying a large quantity of food (often the case with picnics and BBQs when family and friends come together), and you’ve got a real problem to deal with.


1. Keep it Fresh – The longer food sits, the greater the risk of bacteria. Wait as long as you can before preparing/cooking food for your outing – no more than one day in advance (unless you plan on freezing it).

2. Keep it Clean – Be sure you and everyone else involved in food preparation washes their hands thoroughly before handling any food. The same goes for utensils, countertops, dishes, and containers. Dirty containers = possible infection.

3. Cool it Down and Keep it Cold – The majority of reported cases of food borne illness are due to not properly cooling and and then immediately refrigerating cooked foods that will be eaten at a later time. Using a shallow pan or dish, spread the food out, no more than two inches deep, and refrigerate. Keep cold food cold at 40 degrees Fahrenheit or colder to prevent bacterial growth. Food containing mayonnaise, such as coleslaw and tuna salad, should be kept cold. When mixed with protein or vegetables, mayo – though too acidic by itself to promote bacteria growth – can be a breeding ground for danger in the heat.

4. Keep Hot Food Hot – Keep hot foods at 140 degrees Fahrenheit or hotter to prevent the growth of harmful bacteria. Take-out foods and foods cooked just prior to being transported can be carried hot by placing hot food in insulated travel packs or by wrapping hot food in towels and newspaper, and then placing it inside a box or heavy paper bag. Be sure to keep hot foods warming on a lit grill or use within one hour.

5. Separate – Avoid cross-contamination by properly cleaning hands, utensils, cookware, and cutting boards after contact with raw meat or poultry; use separate cutting boards for meat and vegetables.

6. Wash it Well – The rinds of melons such as watermelon and cantaloupe contain bacteria, such as salmonella and shigella. Before cutting into a melon, always wash it thoroughly. Once cut, refrigerate it immediately. Wash all fruits and vegetables well before prepping; once prepped, store them in coolers or the refrigerator to keep bacteria at bay.

7. Pack it Right – If you’re unsure of your capability to keep foods at the right temperatures, pack foods that need no refrigeration and skip the hassle. Foods like: peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, dried fruit, nuts, unpeeled fresh fruit such as (apples, oranges, and bananas), unopened canned and vacuum sealed shelf stable foods, cookies, cakes, chips, and crackers.

8. Cook it Well – If you’re going to grill food onsite at your picnic, make sure all items to be cooked have been kept cold in transit and while waiting for the grill to fire. Do not take meats out until your grill is ready for them to go on. Once on the grill, be sure to cook all meat and poultry thoroughly – no pink – to destroy all harmful bacteria.

9. Serve it Up – then Clean it Up – Once you have served food and everyone has filled their plates and eaten, pack away the leftovers, right away. Never leave food out for more than 1 hour’s time at room temperature. While the food is out, be sure it is covered, as foraging insects can carry harmful bacteria and viruses on their bodies, contaminating your food. Once you have packed food away, make sure that it stays at the proper temperature to prevent spoilage.

10. Throw it Out – If food has been left to sit for longer than 1 hour (less if the day’s heat is extreme), if the ice in your cooler has melted or the proper temperature cannot be maintained, throw out any leftovers. Cold water will not keep your foods cool enough to prevent spoilage. It’s better to be safe than sorry and throw leftovers away if you have questions.

By following these ten simple rules you can enjoy summer’s bounty outdoors with friends and family and skip the painful side effects of food gone bad.