Summer is the prime time for picnicking, camping, and grilling outdoors. The scene is familiar: the brats or burgers, the cold drinks, the watermelons, the potato salad - and the 20,000 hungry bacteria who somehow ended up in your food, eager to spread gastronomic mayhem.
"There are no foods void of any bacteria," said Holly Van Heel, Health and Nutrition Program specialist for ISU Extension and Outreach.
Bacteria can multiply every 15 or 20 minutes. If a sandwich or a salad has just five bacteria in it, Van Heel said, within an hour that has grown to 80 bacteria. In two hours that has grown to 1,280, and in three hours, it's 20,480 bacteria.
-Messenger photo by Hans Madsen
Following some simple rules helps ensure a healthier, happier outdoor dining experience, say local experts.
To keep food safe when taking it on the road or the trail, some planning ahead is needed.
"There are a lot of celebrations outside; how do you keep cold things cold outside in 90-degree weather?" Van Heel said.
The first thing to remember with any outdoor cooking is "to keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold," she said.
Bacteria grow rapidly at temperatures between 40 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit, she said, so it's important to keep perishable foods out of this "danger zone."
To start with, make sure you pack plenty of ice in your cooler, said Kathleen Josten, dietitian at the Webster County Health Department.
Josten recommended using separate coolers for drinks and perishable items. "If you're opening the cooler frequently to get drinks out, that's letting in warm air."
Also, she said, don't take food out until you're ready to eat it, and put it back in the cooler when you're done.
Van Heel said it was a good idea to put a thermometer in the cooler to make sure it is under 40 degrees.
Any perishable food that has been out of the cooler for two hours can't be saved, Van Heel said.
"When you take the potato salad out of the cooler with ice, you have two hours," she said. "You either eat the whole thing or throw it all away. Don't put it back in the cooler."
In hot weather, that deadline grows even shorter.
"Usually we say two hours is OK, but if it's above 90 degrees you want to cut that back to just one hour," said Josten.
Care should also be taken to keep raw food separate from ready-to-eat foods, such as salad.
"You don't want chicken juice or hamburger juice dripping in the green bean salad," said Van Heel.
The best thing to do is use a separate cooler for raw meat, she said.
"The cooler needs to go in the car, where the air conditioning is going to be," said Van Heel - not in the trunk.
Finally, Van Heel said, some foods need refrigerating that you might not expect.
"A tomato or watermelon whole, sitting on your counter, is safe. As soon as you cut into it, you have to eat it, refrigerate it, or throw it out. It can't continue at room temperature," she said. "Once lettuce or spinach is chopped or cut, it's the same thing; it has to be refrigerated."
It's also important to grill meat to the proper temperature. Van Heel and Josten recommended using a meat thermometer.
"There are three numbers to remember when you're grilling: 145, 160, and 165 degrees," said Van Heel.
Steaks, pork chops, and whole cuts of meat are safe when cooked to an internal temperature of 145 degrees. Ground meat, such as burgers and bratwurst, requires 160 degrees. And all kinds of poultry should be cooked to 165.
Don't cross-contaminate by picking up clean food with dirty plates or utensils, Van Heel said.
"Don't take raw meat to the grill and serve it on the same platter. Change out your platter. Maybe even change tongs," she said. If you don't want to take two platters, she said to cover the platter with wax paper when carrying raw meat. Then, throw out the paper to serve the cooked meat.
Keep it Clean
"Wash your hands, wash your hands, wash your hands," said Van Heel. People should think ahead of time how they will wash up at a picnic or campsite. If no water is provided, take some along.
If you're having trouble taking wash water, "you can take a soapy washrag and put it in a Ziplock bag, and take that with you," she said. "Tote along some towels or paper towels so you can dry."
In pinch, hand sanitizer is also useful and comes in many sizes.
"Is it the best? No. But is it better than nothing? Yes. ... It can help minimize some of the dangers," she said.
Van Heel also recommended covering food whenever possible, to keep away flies.
"They've been known to carry shigellosis," she said. "You know how flies eat - they don't have teeth, so they vomit on the food, then they stamp it in, then they slurp it up. While they're there, they are not house trained, so they may leave a calling card, and then leave, and then we get to eat."