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FOR RELEASE: June 29, 2000
CONTACT: Dick Gunn

Outdoor Food Safety Guidelines

Each year, hundreds of Oklahomans become ill due to foodborne diseases, many of which are contracted during the summer months. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that foodborne diseases cause approximately 76 million illnesses, 325,000 hospitalizations, and 5,000 deaths in the United States each year. In 1999, Oklahoma had 500 cases of foodborne illness due to Campylobacter, E. coli 0157:H7, and Salmonella during the summer months of May through September. This five-month period accounts for more than half of all foodborne illnesses in Oklahoma during 1999.

It is important to remember that the warm temperatures of summer create a challenge for food safety in the home. The Oklahoma State Department of Health (OSDH) has compiled a few basic safety tips to prevent foodborne illness associated with popular summer activities.

Begin with Safe Food

  • Perishable food must be kept cold or frozen at the store and at home. In between, the food should be at room temperature or in the car as little time as possible. Then it must be kept cold or cooked and chilled. Food should not be out of the refrigerator or oven longer than two hours.
  • If cooking foods beforehand--such as turkey, ham, chicken, and vegetable or pasta salads--prepare them in plenty of time to thoroughly chill in the refrigerator. Divide large amounts of food into small containers for fast chilling and easier use. Keep cooked foods refrigerated until time to leave home.

Packing for Outings

  • If taking food away from home--on a picnic, for example--try to plan just the right amount of perishable foods to take. That way, you won't have to worry about the storage or safety of leftovers.
  • Items that don't require refrigeration include fruits, vegetables, canned meat or fish, chips, bread, crackers, peanut butter, jelly, mustard, and pickles. Don't worry about packing these items in a cooler.
  • It's safe to store uncooked patties as well as raw steaks, ribs, chops, and raw poultry in the refrigerator for a day or so until ready to pack the cooler. Just make sure that raw, juicy meats and poultry are put into separate plastic bags – don't let drippings contaminate other foods.

Purchasing Take-Out Foods

  • If you're planning on purchasing take-out foods such as fried chicken or barbecued beef, eat them within two hours of pickup. Otherwise, buy cooked foods ahead of time to chill before packing them into the cooler.

Keeping Cold Food Cold

  • After estimating the amount of food that needs to be kept cold, pack an insulated cooler with sufficient ice or gel packs to keep the food at 40 °F. Pack food right from the refrigerator or freezer into the cooler. Why? Bacteria grow and multiply rapidly in the danger zone between 40 °F and 140 °F (out of the refrigerator or before food begins to cook). So, food transported without an ice source or left out in the sun at a picnic won't stay safe long.
  • If packing a bag lunch or lunch box, it's fine to prepare the food the night before and store the packed lunch in the refrigerator.
  • To keep the lunch cool away from home, pack a small frozen gel pack or frozen juice box. Of course, if there's a refrigerator available, store perishable items there upon arrival. Leftover perishables that have been kept refrigerated should be safe to take home. But once gel packs and other cold sources melt, perishables are not safe -- discard them.
  • When taking food to a picnic, don't put the cooler in the trunk; carry it inside the air-conditioned car. At the picnic, keep the cooler in the shade. Keep the lid closed and avoid repeated openings. Add more ice if it melts.

Serving Food

  • Except when served, the food should be stored in a cooler. Just like a refrigerator at home when the power is off, the more times you open a cooler, the more cold air will escape. Once the ice melts, the cooler won't be able to keep food safe. Keep cold drinks in a separate cooler to avoid constantly opening the one containing perishable foods.
  • If you've packed cooked foods in several small containers, you can serve one and keep the others cold for second helpings. Leave raw meat in the cooler, too. When cooking it, remove from the cooler only the amount that will fit on the grill.

Grilling Safety

  • For safety and quality, the coals should be very hot before cooking food. For optimal heat, burn them 20 to 30 minutes or until they are lightly coated with ash. The USDA recommends against eating raw or undercooked ground beef since harmful bacteria could be present. To be sure bacteria are destroyed, cook hamburgers to 160 °F on a meat thermometer. Large cuts of beef such as roasts may be cooked to 145 °F for medium rare or to 160 °F for medium. Cook poultry to 165 °F. Reheat all pre-cooked meats to 165 °F.
  • When taking foods off the grill, don't put the cooked items on the same platter that held the raw meat. Also do not use utensils that have touched raw meat to cut up raw vegetables or other uncooked foods.Raw meat juices can contain bacteria that could cross-contaminate safely cooked foods.
  • Do not partially grill extra hamburgers to use later. Once you begin cooking hamburgers by any method, cook them until completely done to assure that bacteria are destroyed.

If you have questions about food-borne illnesses or food safety, call your local county health department.


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