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Ice Coolers and Food Safety

Cookouts and picnics are frequent and honored traditions of summer, a time for family and friends to gather, socialize and have fun. But summer outings can be ruined if safe food handling and preparation techniques aren't observed. Hot summer temperatures can help food-borne bacteria multiply at a rapid pace, spoiling food and causing illness.

The Food Safety and Inspection Service gives the following recommendations for handling food when spending time outdoors:

Keep Hot Foods Hot & Cold Foods Cold

Whether you are in your kitchen or enjoying the great outdoors, there are some food safety principles that remain constant. The first is keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold. Meat and poultry products may contain bacteria that cause food-borne illness. They must be cooked to destroy these bacteria and held at temperatures that are either too hot or too cold for these bacteria to grow.

Most bacteria do not grow rapidly at temperatures below 40 °F or above 140 °F. The temperature range in between is known as the Danger Zone. Bacteria multiply rapidly at these temperatures and can reach dangerous levels after 2 hours.

If you are traveling with cold foods, bring a cooler with a cold source. If you are cooking, use a hot campfire or portable stove. It is difficult to keep foods hot without a heat source when traveling, so it's best to cook foods before leaving home, cool them and transport them cold.

Keep Everything Clean

The second principle is that bacteria present on raw meat and poultry products can be easily spread to other foods by juices dripping from packages, hands or utensils. This is called cross-contamination. When transporting raw meat or poultry, double wrap or place the packages in plastic bags to prevent juices from the raw product from dripping on other foods. Always wash your hands before and after handling food and don't use the same platter and utensils for raw and cooked meat and poultry. Soap and water are essential to cleanliness, so if you are going somewhere that will not have running water, bring it with you. Even disposable wipes will do.

Food Safety While Hiking & Camping

Sometimes you just have to get out and walk around in the solitude and beauty of our country. You may want to hike for just a few hours or you may want to camp for a few days. One meal and some snacks are all that is needed for a short hike. Planning meals for a longer hike requires more thought. You have to choose foods that are light enough to carry in a backpack and that can be transported safely.

Hot or Cold?

The first principle is to keep foods either hot or cold. Since it is difficult to keep foods hot without a heat source, it is best to transport chilled foods. Refrigerate or freeze the food overnight. For a cold source, bring frozen gel-packs or freeze some box drinks. The drinks will thaw as you hike and keep your meal cold at the same time. What foods to bring? For a day hike, just about anything will do as long as you can fit it in your backpack and keep it cold -- sandwiches, fried chicken, bread and cheese, and even salads -- or choose non-perishable foods.

Clean

The second principle is to keep everything clean, so remember to bring disposable wipes if you are taking a day trip.

Safe Drinking Water

It is not a good idea to depend on fresh water from a lake or stream for drinking, no matter how clean it appears. Some pathogens thrive in remote mountain lakes or streams and there is no way to know what might have fallen into the water upstream. Bring bottled or tap water for drinking. Always start out with a full water bottle and replenish your supply from tested public systems when possible. On long trips you can find water in streams, lakes, and springs, but be sure to purify any water from the wild, no matter how clean it appears.

The surest way to make water safe is to boil it. Boiling will kill microorganisms. First, bring water to a rolling boil, and then continue boiling for 1 minute. Before heating, muddy water should be allowed to stand for a while to allow the silt to settle to the bottom. Dip the clear water off the top and boil. At higher elevations, where the boiling point of water is lower, boil for several minutes.

As an alternative to boiling water, you can also use water purification tablets and water filters. The purification tablets -- which contain iodine, halazone, or chlorine -- kill most waterborne bacteria, viruses and some (but not all) parasites. Because some parasites -- such as Cryptosporidium parvum, Giardia lamblia and larger bacteria -- are not killed by purification tablets, you must also use a water filter. These water filtering devices must be 1 micron absolute or smaller. Over time purification tablets lose their potency, so keep your supply fresh. Water sanitizing tablets for washing dishes can also be purchased (just don't confuse the two). Water purification tablets, filters and sanitizing tablets can be purchased at camping supply stores.

What Foods to Bring?

If you are backpacking for more than a day, the food situation gets a little more complicated. You can still bring cold foods for the first day, but you'll have to pack shelf-stable items for the next day. Canned goods are safe, but heavy, so plan your menu carefully. Advances in food technology have produced relatively lightweight staples that don't need refrigeration or careful packaging.

Powdered mixes for biscuits or pancakes are easy to carry and prepare, as is dried pasta. There are plenty of powdered sauce mixes that can be used over pasta, but check the required ingredient list. Carry items like dried pasta, rice and baking mixes in plastic bags and take only the amount you will need.

Cooking at Camp

After you have decided on a menu, you need to plan how you will prepare the food. You will want to take as few pots as possible. Camping supply stores sell lightweight cooking gear that nest together, but you can also use aluminum foil wrap and pans for cooking.

You'll need to decide in advance how you will cook. Will you bring along a portable stove, or will you build a campfire? Many camping areas prohibit campfires, so check first or assume you will have to take a stove. Make sure to bring any equipment you will need. If you are bringing a camp stove, practice putting it together and lighting it before you pack. If you build a campfire, carefully extinguish the fire and dispose of the ashes before breaking camp. Likewise, leftover food should be burned, not dumped. Lastly, be sure to pack garbage bags to dispose of any other trash, and carry it out with you.

Use a Food Thermometer

Another important piece of camping equipment is a food thermometer. If you are cooking meat or poultry on a portable stove or over a fire, you'll need a way to determine when it is done and safe to eat. Color is not a reliable indicator of doneness, and it can be especially tricky to tell the color of a food if you are cooking in a wooded area in the evening.

When cooking hamburger patties on a grill or portable stove, use a digital thermometer to measure the temperature. Digital thermometers register the temperature in the very tip of the probe, so the safety of thin foods -- such as hamburger patties and boneless chicken breasts -- as well as thicker foods can be determined. A dial thermometer determines the temperature of a food by averaging the temperature along the stem and, therefore, should be inserted 2 to 2 ½ inches into the food. If the food is thin, the probe must be inserted sideways into the food.

It is critical to use a food thermometer when cooking hamburgers. Ground beef may be contaminated with E. coli O157:H7, a particularly dangerous strain of bacteria. Illnesses have occurred even when ground beef patties were cooked until there was no visible pink. The only way to ensure that ground beef patties are safely cooked is to use a food thermometer, and cook the patty until it reaches 160 °F.

Cook all meat and poultry to safe minimum internal temperatures:
  • Beef, veal, and lamb steaks, roasts, and chops may be cooked to 145 °F
  • All cuts of pork to 160 °F
  • Ground beef, veal and lamb to 160 °F
  • All poultry should reach 165 °F
  • Heat hot dogs and any leftover food to 165 °F.
  • Be sure to clean the thermometer between uses
Keeping Cold

If you are car camping (driving to your site), you don't have quite as many restrictions. First, you will have the luxury of bringing a cooler. What kind of cooler? Foam chests are lightweight, low cost and have good cold retention power. But they are fragile and may not last through numerous outings. Plastic, fiberglass or steel coolers are more durable and can take a lot of outdoor wear. They also have excellent cold retention power, but, once filled, larger models may weigh 30 or 40 pounds.

To keep foods cold, you will need a cold source. A block of ice keeps longer than ice cubes. Before leaving home, freeze clean, empty milk cartons filled with water to make blocks of ice or use frozen gel-packs. Fill the cooler with cold or frozen foods. Pack foods in reverse order. First foods packed should be the last foods used. (There is one exception: pack raw meat or poultry below ready-to-eat foods to prevent raw meat or poultry juices from dripping on the other foods.) Take foods in the smallest quantity needed (e.g., a small jar of mayonnaise). At the campsite, insulate the cooler with a blanket, tarp or poncho. When the camping trip is over, discard all perishable foods if there is no longer ice in the cooler or if the gel-pack is no longer frozen.

Cleanup

Whether taking a hike or camping at an established site, if you will be washing dishes or cookware there are some rules to follow. Camping supply stores sell biodegradable camping soap in liquid and solid forms. But use it sparingly, and keep it out of rivers, lakes, streams and springs, as it will pollute. If you use soap to clean your pots, wash the pots at the campsite, not at the water's edge. Dump dirty water on dry ground, well away from fresh water. Some wilderness campers use baking soda to wash their utensils. Pack disposable wipes for hands and quick cleanups.

CASE STUDY: A 43 year old MSgt was suffering from food poisoning when he fainted, striking his head on a door. His wife called for an ambulance and he was transported to a local hospital and treated for dehydration, gastrointestinal distress, concussion and a large laceration on the front left side of his head.

BOTTOM LINE:

When left unrefrigerated, many foods can become contaminated with bacteria that produce dangerous toxins that cause food poisoning. These bacteria are undetectable by sight, smell or taste and thrive on foods that are left out for very long, especially at warmer, summer temperatures.

Food-borne illness symptoms are much like those of the flu, which include headache, diarrhea, vomiting, abdominal cramps and fever. These signs may not appear until several hours to several days after eating a contaminated food. Food poisoning can be especially harmful for children, older adults, pregnant women and those with chronic illnesses.

Meat, poultry, fish, and eggs should never be eaten raw. These foods should be maintained in a refrigerator at a temperature below 40 degrees Fahrenheit and cooked thoroughly before eating. A cooking temperature of 160 degrees is advised. When cooking, use a meat thermometer or follow these tips.

Poultry: Cook it until the meat is white, and don't eat it if you see blood or pink meat.
Hamburger: Cook it until there are no traces of pink in the center, or blood in the juices.
Steaks: Can be safely cooked medium; that's because harmful bacteria in beef are found on the surface of the steak, not in the interior like in ground meats.
Fish: Cook until it flakes easily and is no longer translucent in the center.
Egg: Cook eggs and egg dishes thoroughly. Don't even sample anything containing raw eggs such as uncooked dough and cake batter.

Other Tips for Safe Food Handling, Preparation and Storage
  • Keep foods cold, below 40 degrees Fahrenheit, or hot, above 140 degrees Fahrenheit. Foods left out between those temperatures for more than two hours should be discarded
  • Keep cooked foods separate from raw foods. Cross-contamination of foods could occur if bacteria-harboring raw food comes in contact with cooked foods. Wash hands, utensils, cutting boards and countertops after preparing or handling raw meats