By Bethany Kandel
Potato salad, ice cold lemonade, hotdogs and hamburgers on the outdoor grill. These are the tastes of summer. This is the time of year for picnics, bbqs, and al fresco dining in the backyard.
But tagging along all that delicious food and drink can lurk disease-causing bacteria that just love an outdoor party. According to the USDA, summer sees a spike in food-borne illnesses due to improper handling and serving. Harmful bacteria grow very rapidly at room temperature so it’s important to be extra vigilant about preparing, transporting, and serving food when temperatures rise.
Yet many of us are unsure of the proper food safety precautions to keep our families from getting sick. To find out what is fact or fiction, Caitlin Hoff, Health & Safety Investigator at ConsumerSafety.org busts some common myths:
Fiction: It’s ok to transport fresh food in a cooler or ice chest in the trunk of an air-conditioned car.
Fact: "The best place to keep your cooler is in the air-conditioned passenger compartment of your car," says Hoff. The trunk tends to be the warmest spot even with the air-conditioner running. If you must put it in the trunk, be sure to eat or cook your food sooner rather than later, as a precaution.
Fiction: You should bring defrosted raw meat to a picnic, ready to cook.
Fact: Keep your perishables in a well-insulated cooler with lots of ice or ice packs to keep them cool. "Ideally, you want the internal temperature to be forty degrees Fahrenheit or lower," she says. "To keep raw meat cold and prevent bacteria growth, put frozen meat in the cooler when you head out." Do not thaw ahead of time. You can safely cook frozen or partially frozen meat, though it will take longer. Use a thermometer to check the meat’s temperature to determine when it is fully cooked and safe to eat. See this chart for safe cooking temperatures: https://www.consumersafety.org/food/faqs/
Fiction: Food will stay safe for hours outdoors if it’s in the shade.
Fact: Keep your cooler filled with perishables in the shade away from direct sunlight. "In temperatures over ninety degrees, food should be thrown out if left out of the cooler for over an hour," says Hoff. "In temperatures below ninety degrees, you can keep food out for up to two hours." Even safer would be to place cooked food back in a cooler for storage as soon as possible to avoid food-borne illnesses. Remove food from the cooler directly before cooking.
Fiction: It’s ok to keep meat and drinks in the same cooler.
Fact: To keep the proper internal temperature of your cooler in hot weather, Hoff says you should try to limit the number of times it is opened, especially if it contains meat. One way to do this is to keep beverages in a separate cooler that can be opened again and again without causing a safety issue.
Fiction: Store-bought mayonnaise is safe at any temperature; you only have to worry about the homemade version.
Fact: Mayo gets a bad rap. Since most commercial brands contain vinegar and other acidic ingredients, store-bought mayo can actually protect against spoilage. However, typical picnic dishes often combine mayo with more easily contaminated ingredients like eggs, tuna, and chicken. So, while the mayo might be safe, the chicken it's mixed with may not be. "For best practices, dishes that contain ingredients besides mayo should be thrown out if left out for more than two hours. If you make your own mayo with unpasteurized eggs, stick to the two-hour rule as well," she says.
Fiction: You need to throw out everything in your refrigerator and freezer if the power goes out.
Fact: In the event of a power outage, food in a refrigerator is safe for four hours, but food in the freezer is only good for about forty-eight hours. (In both cases it’s important to keep the door shut as much as possible.)
"Any food left above forty degrees for two hours or more should be thrown out, so if the power outage lasted more than four hours, chances are your meat, dairy, and other refrigerated perishable items are no longer safe to eat," Hoff says.
If you have a thermometer in the freezer, check that when the power resumes. If the temperature is below forty, the food should be safe to refreeze and eat. Condiments typically fare better than other perishable items during a power outage. Mayo, for example, can last out of the refrigerator for up to 8 hours. Ketchup, mustard, and any vinegar-based salad dressings will be fine as well thanks to their acidity.