Ants aren’t the only things that can spoil your summertime picnic.
Bacteria can grow, and germs can spread, in food that’s not handled or cooked properly, and can cause illness or even death.
Reports of E. coli and salmonella contamination incidents are common, and foodborne illness statistics can be sobering.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report 1-in-6 people will have a foodborne illness each year, with 128,000 hospitalized and 3,000 dying.
Area experts offer some common sense advice on how people can protect themselves – not only at outdoor picnics, but also at fairs and festivals. While their recommendations are specific to warm weather, their suggestions hold true at other times of the year, too.
“It seems like every other week there’s news of a foodborne illness outbreak,” said Leatta Byrd, Michigan State University Extension Service food educator. “As food is produced further and further away, and in other countries, it can happen anytime. In warmer weather, there’s more chance for bacteria growth and more concerns about eating out.”
Byrd, a registered dietitian who serves a seven-county area in Southwest Michigan, noted being careful in the handling and preparing of food is one of the keys to preventing foodborne illnesses.
“If there’s no running water available, bring your own soap and water, hand sanitizers and towelettes,” she said.
“You can get water-filled jugs with spigots to put on the picnic table in case there’s no water supply where you’re at,” she added. “Hand sanitizers only reduce the amount of bacteria on your hands, it doesn’t replace hand washing.”
She recommends people wash their hands after handling raw meats, use separate plates and utensils, and not cross-contaminate foods.
“Don’t mix raw and cooked foods,” she said. “If raw meat has been on a plate, the residues can stay on it unless you wash it with soap and water.”
Other suggestions she has for summer picnic outings include bringing along coolers filled with ice, keeping deviled eggs, salads and other perishable items at 40 degrees or lower, not leaving leftovers out more than two hours (or one hour if it’s 90 degrees or hotter), and cooking meats to the right temperature.
A food thermometer is essential when it comes to grilling meat, poultry and seafood, she said. Chicken should be cooked to an internal temperature of 165 degrees or more, beef or pork burgers to 155 or more, and fish to 145 or more. Even stir fry vegetables and kebabs should be cooked to a temperature of at least 135 degrees.
Cleaning produce is also important.
“Lettuces and salad greens need to be properly cleaned, it only takes a small amount of soil pathogens to make you sick,” Byrd said. “You should use a scrubber on the outside of tough-skin fruits, like melons, before cutting them open.”
For fair and festival attendees this summer, Byrd recommends people wash their hands thoroughly – which means using soap and water for at least 20 seconds – after visiting animal barns and petting areas.
“Germs can be transferred to other parts of the fair,” she said. “They can also be on shoes and strollers, which should be cleaned with towelettes.”
As for food vendors, her advice is to look for the booths and food trucks that look clean and tidy, where workers are wearing gloves and using tongs, where items like the sink and refrigerator can be seen and where a license is on display.
Summer brings more talk of E. coli bacteria and salmonella, and Byrd said their spread can be prevented by thoroughly cooking meats and washing one’s hands after using the restroom.
“Only a small amount of bacteria can cause foodborne illnesses,” she said. “It’s not something to be taken lightly, people need to take precautions.”
“Heat kills, so I tell people to avoid undercooked meats, raw milk and unpasteurized juices,” she added. “Also they should thoroughly wash produce and avoid undercooked eggs. ... You can have a good time, if you keep food safety in mind. It’s something easy but something people have to be reminded about.”
Berrien County Health Department Communications Manager Gillian Conrad and Supervising Sanitarian Brian Murphy agree that it’s natural for food safety concerns to increase in the summertime. The weather is warmer and people are doing more outdoor activities, including attending picnics and going to fairs and festivals.
“Bacteria grow faster in the summer when it’s hot and humid,” Conrad said. “With people doing more outdoor activities, there are more opportunities for bacteria to quickly multiply.”
She said the county has seen foodborne illness outbreaks, but noted they don’t happen that frequently.
“Outbreaks are not routine,” she said. “Foodborne illnesses all come with gastrointestinal distress, such as diarrhea, vomiting and cramps. The young, the old and pregnant women are most at risk.”
Murphy noted people have to use common sense to keep their food safe when they’re away from home.
“Keep hot food hot and cold food cold,” he said. “I camp a lot, and I always take plenty of ice packs and coolers. I keep separate coolers, one for the meats and one for the beverages and other food.”
“I’m also a big stickler on hand washing,” he added. “It’s crucial to wash your hands before cooking and after handling raw meat. You should also wash your hands after handling money and touching your phone or your hair. ... Treat your hands as if they’re contaminated.”
“A recent USDA study found that 97 percent of people are not washing their hands sufficiently,” Conrad said. “People need to wash their hands for at least 20 seconds.”
Temperature is another key to stopping foodborne illnesses, whether it’s in the preparation of meats, poultry and seafood, or how long leftovers can stay outside.
Murphy said the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s FoodKeeper app gives information on minimum heating temperatures as well as storage rules.
People shouldn’t keep leftovers – whether meats, salads or salsa – out for more than one hour if the temperature is 90 degrees, or more than two hours if the temperature is less than 90.
“When in doubt, throw it out,” Murphy said.
Murphy and his staff inspects food preparation at restaurants, schools, churches, festivals, fairs and food trucks. His advice for people attending fairs, festivals and visiting food trucks is to look around at things such as how vendors wash their hands after handling money and whether they use gloves in handling food.
“People should look at the cleanliness of a vendor and can even ask to see their license,” he said. “If something doesn’t look right, don’t go there.”
Food safety at the BCYF
The Berrien County Youth Fair continues to do all it can to make sure people have a safe fair experience when it comes to food and food safety, Fair Manager Karen Klug said.
She said the fair has nine permanent hand-washing stations and two more they rent for fair week in addition to the six permanent restroom facilities. The hand washing stations are located around the animal barns, the concessions area, the rides area and behind the commercial buildings.
“With the help of the MDARD (Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development), we are able to put appropriate signage in our animal barns to help educate the public of the need to wash their hands after visiting the animals,” she said.
She noted the fair works to keep all visitors and exhibitors safe and healthy.
“Hand washing and no eating or drinking in the animal barns are two ways that we try to protect all that attend,” she said. “There are some zoonotic diseases – ones that can spread from humans to animals or animals to humans – that we try to protect against with good biosecurity.”
Her advice to fairgoers is simple: “Visitors to the fair should remember to use the hand wash stations provided. They should also keep toys, sippy cups and pacifiers in diaper bags, and not eat or drink in the animal barns.”