By Rose L. Thayer
Killeen Daily Herald
The Fourth of July and picnics go hand in hand. But among all the excitement and celebration, keeping food safe and healthy for consumption is the key to ensuring everyone has a great time.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, foodborne illness instances spike in the summertime for two reasons: Bacteria multiply faster when it's warmer and people tend to get outdoors and cook outside away from refrigeration and washing facilities more often.
Local food safety and health officials said there are many steps that can be taken when preparing for an outdoor picnic or barbecue that can protect people from getting sick.
Keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold
Beverly Hodges, the director of nutrition services at Metroplex Hospital in Killeen, said that this may sound obvious, but it's the most important thing you can do.
"The issue with that is that there's bacteria in food and so what we have to do is make sure to keep food at a temperature where the bacteria doesn't reproduce," Hodges said. "Any time that you've not been able to keep it cold or hot, you definitely want to throw it away."
She said a trick most people forget is that a cooler can also keep food hot.
"Line it with a heavy kitchen towel and provide extra installation," Hodges said.
George Highsmith, supervisor of food protection for the Bell County Public Health District, said that hot foods should be kept above 135 degrees to be safe for consumption, and cold foods should be kept below 45 degrees.
"That's just to simply stave off bacteria growth for any type on contamination that might occur," Highsmith said.
More than an hour in between those two temperatures could leave food dangerous for consumption, and Highsmith recommends it be thrown away.
Plan ahead, but cook fresh
Raw vegetables are not considered hazardous until they have been cooked, Highsmith said, so it's best to prepare cooked vegetables as close to consumption as possible.
"Avoid cooking in advance because then you've got the addition of time and a multiple of handling processes that can cause contamination as well as time and temperature abuse," he said.
When cooking meat, Highsmith said, keep raw meat cold until time for cooking, and then, cook thoroughly and use a thermometer to check that the correct temperature has been reached.
Hodges said another common misstep when cooking raw meat is using the same utensils and plates for raw and cooked meats; she said this happens a lot when sinks and washing stations are not readily available.
"If you can color coat, that's a great idea," Hodges said. "Something that will make it simple and everybody can remember."
Bring your own means of sanitation
"Wash your hands, wash your hands, wash your hands," Hodges said. And when traveling to parks and campgrounds, she suggests bringing along, soap, hand sanitizer and towelettes.
Hodges added that the towelettes can be used for a range of tasks, such as cleaning knives and thermometers and other surfaces where food will be.
When using an outdoor grill, Hodges recommended bringing soapy water to clean it first.
"If you have the option, store all the raw meats in a separate cooler," Highsmith said, adding that it's important to keep meat in sealed packaging until it's time to cook it, and to keep it away from any ready-to- eat foods.
"Then you lessen the risk of cross contamination," he said.
Highsmith said to keep plenty of ice on hand and make sure coolers are drained regularly. This will keep water from spreading contamination from one food to another.
Hodges said to make sure the cooler is the appropriate size for what is being stored, and to pack the things needed last on bottom.
"It's best to keep drinks in a separate cooler because there's a lot of in and out in that cooler," Hodges said.
For more tips on food safety, go to www.foodsafety.gov.
Contact Rose L. Thayer at firstname.lastname@example.org or (254) 501-7463. Follow her on Twitter at KDHreporter.