Summer in Idaho means sunshine, warm weather and long days, with lots of opportunities to cook and eat outdoors, whether you are backcountry camping, whitewater rafting or enjoying a family picnic in the local park. But as food heats up in the warm weather months, bacteria multiply faster, creating a risk of foodborne illness. So, we thought it was a good time to talk about safe food handling when cooking or eating outdoors.
Ugh. I can’t imagine anything worse than being sick on a hiking trip or rafting trip. What are the main culprits for foodborne illness when eating outdoors?
We’re talking about communicable diseases from the germs norovirus, campylobacter, salmonella, and E. coli, and other gastrointestinal illnesses that can be caused by improperly storing, cooking or serving food, and then can spread rapidly within a group that is sharing close quarters or eating together – and not practicing good hygiene and safe food handling. For most people, symptoms of food poisoning include vomiting and diarrhea, but in some cases, such life-threatening complications as organ failure can occur. Young children, pregnant women, adults over 65, and people with weak immune systems are more likely to get food poisoning, and if they do get sick they might have more severe symptoms.
So, does reducing your risk start with regular hand-washing?
Yes – we can’t stress hand–washing enough for everyone, but especially for food preparers. Disease-causing organisms can be transferred from the hands of anyone preparing food, unless that person has washed his or her hands before touching anything edible. Anyone preparing food should wash their hands frequently with soap and water that has been treated with a capful of bleach for each gallon.
It’s difficult to keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold when you’re tent camping or on a rafting trip. What do you suggest?
The same rules apply on land or water, but you’re right, it is difficult to maintain temperatures in the outdoors if you are not using a recreational vehicle or trailer with refrigerator and oven. Even so, raw eggs and meats and other potentially hazardous food should be stored in a cooler that is 41 degrees Fahrenheit or colder. Put a thermometer in the cooler and check it frequently. Block ice or dry ice lasts longer than cubes and will help keep the temperature where you want it. Raw meat should be stored in separate coolers from the rest of the food, or at least in leak-proof containers at the bottom of the cooler so it will stay colder and won’t contaminate other foods. Most food, except for raw fruits and veggies that should be washed anyway before consumption, should not be stored in contact with ice or water in coolers.
So, any tips for preparing food away from a kitchen to also avoid contamination?
Sure – Use separate cutting boards for raw meats, poultry or fish and other foods, or clean and sanitize them in between. Cook meat and eggs thoroughly. Thaw frozen foods in coolers. Don’t keep food that might spoil or become contaminated at temperatures higher than 41 degrees for longer than four hours. Use utensils to serve foods, including shared, bagged snacks, which should be poured into a bowl before they are served. Don’t grab stuff off a platter with your fingers no matter how hungry you are!
Finally, what about cleanup – how do you wash dishes and utensils in the outdoors?
A three-container system will help ensure your dishes are clean and sanitized after a meal. Fill the first container with water that is 110 degrees Fahrenheit and dish soap. Fill the second with clean hot water, again at 110 degrees. Fill the third with clean warm water that is 75 degrees and a capful of bleach per gallon of water. Scrape all the food off the dishes, then wash them in the first container, rinse them in the second, and immerse them for 30 seconds in the third container to sanitize them. Then air-dry the dishes on a clean drain board or in a drying net.
A Closer Look at Your Health airs weekly on KBOI-AM 670 in Boise on Tuesdays at 6:50 a.m. This is a transcript of the June 12, 2018 program.
- Learn what causes food poisoning from the CDC.
- Watch short videos on steps to Clean, Separate, Cook and Chill to lower your risk.
- Tips on washing hands and surfaces to prevent illness-causing bacteria from Foodsafety.gov.