Blankets: check. Paper plates: check. Plasticware: check. Drinks: check. Sandwiches: check. Salmonella: ummm, check?While you may be excited about the warm summer weather and picnicking in the park, getting sick from the food you pack is nothing to get excited about. Foodborne illnesses, caused by eating foods contaminated with microorganisms, are responsible for an estimated 48 million illnesses and 3,000 deaths each year in the U.S. Symptoms include abdominal cramps, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea, but they can be more severe and result in death in some cases. Everyone is at risk for these food-related illnesses, especially infants and young children, pregnant women, older adults and those with weakened immune systems. Thankfully, they are easily preventable. Follow these rules to keep you and your family safe when packing a picnic meal:1) Keep cold foods cold and keep hot foods hot to prevent bacterial growth. Bacteria multiply rapidly between the temperatures of 40 °F and 140 °F. Wrap cold prepared foods such as cut melons and sandwiches in plastic wrap or aluminum foil, then submerge in ice or between ice packs in an insulated container. For hot foods, wrap containers of just cooked foods or take-out in towels to retain warmth and eat within one hour. 2) Cool the cooler. If traveling, transport the cooler inside the vehicle instead of in the hot truck. Cover with a blanket or place in a shaded area once you arrive to your destination.3) Wash your hands or use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer before handling food.4) When in doubt, throw it out. Not all harmful bacteria can be seen, smelled or tasted. If food has been sitting out for more than two hours or if the ice in the cooler has completely melted, throw away the food. Meat, chicken, fish, eggs or food made with these ingredients should be discarded if left out for one hour.Foodborne illnesses should not be a reason your family cannot enjoy a tasty and healthy time spent outside. Most plain, pre-cut vegetables are safe for a few hours. Although mayonnaise is acidic and helps reduce microorganism growth, favorable conditions for bacteria to multiply are created when combined with high-protein meats such as chicken and tuna. Be sure to follow the listed guidelines above to keep these foods cool. Picnics are a great way to enjoy the outdoors, so don’t let a food safety mishap ruin an otherwise beautiful day.
Alyssa Ashmore is a June 2011 graduate of the Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital Dietetic Internship program in Dallas who completed a community nutrition rotation with Neva Cochran in May.