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Spoiler alert! Tips for safer summer meals outdoors

Summer is the season when we’re all thinking more about moving our lives outdoors. What we don’t usually think about, though, is that scrumptious bowl of potato salad — that’s been sitting uncovered outside the last few hours.

But not thinking about a picnic-perfect potato salad caused the largest botulism outbreak in America in nearly 40 years.

Every year, there are 48 million reported cases of foodborne illness — that’s one out of every six Americans. Out of that staggering number, there are 128,000 hospitalizations and 3,000 deaths.

While summer brings warmth and comfort, it also provides a whole range of things to consider when dining al fresco. Food safety expert Sanja Ilic from OSU Extension has some thoughts about how to keep your food safe when planning meals outdoors.

Whether you are in your kitchen or enjoying the great outdoors, the principles of food safety are the same. 
What temperatures should you keep your food?

The “danger zone” for food is between 40 and 140° F. Food in this range is much more susceptible to bacteria growth, something that can undoubtedly produce an upset stomach. Bacteria multiply rapidly at these temperatures and can reach dangerous levels after two hours (or one hour if the temperature climbs to 90° F or above).

What foods are least likely to spoil if left outside?

Select nonperishable foods, such as canned tuna, ham, chicken or beef. Dried meat or jerky will work well, along with dry pasta, powdered sauce and dried fruit and nuts.

Packing food to travel, how can you keep it safe?

It’s better to refrigerate or freeze foods before putting them in a cooler. To keep food cold, bring frozen gel-packs or freeze some juice boxes or other boxed drinks.

If using ice cubes, make sure the melted water is contained to prevent cross-contamination from raw foods. A larger ice block works better than cubes.

Pack the cooler full, and keep it in the shade or cover it with a beach towel or blanket. The cooler’s ability to keep things cold enough drops significantly in direct sunlight.

Use a separate cooler for beverages, so you can open it frequently and not expose perishable items to the heat.

Check meat temperature when cooking outdoors.

Bring a meat thermometer since outdoor cooking sources vary. Meat charred on the outside may be undercooked on the inside.

Cook ground beef to 160° F and steaks, chops and seafood to at least 145° F. Hot dogs, sausage and poultry must be heated to 165° F. 

Never use a plate that held raw meat for any other food — including cooked meat.

Clean and sanitize before and after handling food. While it may seem obvious to wash your hands often, you need to clean and sanitize utensils and other cookware before and after food contact. Bring plenty of disposable wipes, biodegradable soap and fresh water to clean up surfaces after you eat.