Seven Ways to Keep Picnics Delicious and Safe This Summer

Staff Writer
Columbus Monthly

Food poisoning has been in the news way too much in the last several weeks, between listeria outbreaks at Blue Bell and Jeni's Splendid Ice Creams and a scary botulism outbreak in Lancaster that has been blamed for one woman's death and the serious illness and hospitalization of several other people.

Rob Acquista, a food safety supervisor for the Columbus Department of Public Health, knows more about food-borne illness than you or we would be comfortable knowing. Since summer is prime time for food poisoning, with meals being prepared and served outdoors in hot temperatures, we asked Acquista for a few easy ways to steer clear of those nasty pathogenic bacteria.

  1. Pack hand sanitizer. One of the most common causes of cross-contamination is hands-think Aunt Sally prepping chicken for the grill and moving a head of lettuce out of her way in the process. Or an overly eager eater picking at a communal plate. Put hand sanitizer out to minimize these opportunities for contamination.
  2. Invest in tight-closing containers. Seal foods, especially raw meats, in quality containers and bags to prevent more of the ol' cross-contamination. Bonus idea for folks with a vacuum sealer (like FoodSaver): Place marinade and meat in the same bag and seal it up at home.
  3. You've gotta keep 'em separated. "Keep your raw [meats] separate from veggies and salads, and keep chicken separated from burgers, because we cook these to different temperatures," Acquista says.
  4. Submerge in ice. Don't be content to set foods on top of ice in a cooler-surround items with ice to ensure complete cooling and even temperatures.
  5. Follow the two-hour rule. This is the maximum time prepared foods should be allowed to sit out on a summer day. It's a blanket rule that covers all the usual fixins: grilled meats, potato salad, baked beans-you name it. "If it's really hot, I'd almost keep it within an hour," Acquista says. "There are too many things that can happen."
  6. Take the temperature. Carry an instant-read thermometer to check the temp of your chicken, burgers, steaks and other foods (see our handy guide). If you plan to hold foods at their proper temperatures during your party, use an instant-read to make sure cold food stays cold (41 degrees or colder) and hot food stays hot (at least 135 degrees). Just remember to sanitize the probe with an alcohol wipe between dishes.
  7. Use a reliable source. The April botulism outbreak was traced to potato salad made with home-canned potatoes. "Whenever we talk to churches [and other groups hosting picnics], we always want to make sure they buy from an approved source," Acquista says. In other words, buy commercially available ingredients.