Keep guests satiated and safe with summer outdoor food prep tips

By: Sherri Kolade | C&G Newspapers | Published July 31, 2018

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METRO DETROIT — Nobody wants coleslaw with a side of salmonella. Or french fries on a plate sprinkled with E. coli. Cheeseburger and hepatitis A, anyone? 

When hosting barbecues and get-togethers, your guests at outdoor parties want the delicious summer eats — just hold the food poisoning. 

But how does one do summer outdoor parties right? How long can you keep food sitting on a picnic table without refrigeration?

Local experts are here to help you make this grilling and outdoor eating season run smoothly when hosting that perfect shindig in the shade or sun.

Tony Drautz, an administrator with the Oakland County Health Department, said that what their educational message is for the basics of food safety entails following four steps: clean, separate, cook and chill to prevent bacteria from making people sick.

“Whether it is indoors or outdoors, I know around this time of year people like to enjoy the outdoors, and they have their food sitting out for extended periods of time,” he said. “It is important that you recognize the importance of food safety when you are doing that.”

Cleaning, naturally, helps prevent the spread of bacteria through cutting boards, utensils and other surfaces that come in contact with raw meat during the meal preparation period. If that surface area is not cleaned, the risk of cross-contamination is increased, Drautz said. Also, reduce the risk of cross-contamination by keeping items such as raw meat, poultry and fish separate.

Drautz added that keeping the food separate goes for storage in the refrigerator and on the cutting board.

“Washing your hands with warm water for 20 seconds or before and after handling food is very important,” he said. “You never want to bring meat on a plate and then return it, after it is cooked, on that same plate. It may have juices or blood or something that could cross-contaminate … the food.”

Keeping hot foods hot and cold foods cold, while outdoors, is just as important.

According to experts and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, hot foods should be kept at an internal temperature of 140 degrees Fahrenheit while sitting outside, and cold foods should be kept at 41 degrees Fahrenheit or below; frozen foods should stay frozen.

Andrew Cox, environmental health division director at the Macomb County Health Department, said that the county typically sees an uptick in foodborne illness in the summer months.

“Personal hygiene is one of the best ways to prevent the spread of a foodborne illness or having foodborne illness outbreak,” he said, adding that foodborne illness occurs during all seasons.

Cox said that having a properly insulated container, like a cooler, can help keep cold foods cold for a certain amount of time.

“If you are going to a family reunion party, graduation party or you might be preparing food, how are you storing that food is very important,” he said.

Cox also said that four hours is the risk factor for potentially hazardous foods to go into the danger zone, between 41 degrees and 135 degrees Fahrenheit.

“We know that in a four-hour window, there is now an opportunity for you to potentially get sick, so bacteria has had enough time,” he said, adding that beyond that point, it is best to discard the food. “For food safety, we always want to look at risk factors.”

Cox said that the five top foodborne illnesses include salmonella, E. coli, norovirus, hepatitis A and shigella.

“There are others, but those are the main ones we typically see in the summertime,” he said. 

Jeff Gellner, a chef at Farmington-based Pages’ Food & Spirits, said that preparation tips are similar outside as they are inside.

“Obviously, dealing with insects — things of that nature — dealing with how hot or cold it is outside,” Gellner said. “Essentially, when you are cooking outside, you want to bring everything up to 165 degrees; that kills all of the bacteria if there is any inside of your food,” he said. “Obviously, keep it covered. Keep the insects away — you don’t want flies floating around; you want to keep a sanitizing bucket next to you or soapy water for your hands.”

Gellner said that he practices what he preaches, and he has yet to get anyone sick with his cooking, although he wasn’t as fortunate.

“I have gotten sick from a few places. I’m not going to name them,” he said, laughing. “It is not a fun time. They didn’t bring meats up to proper temperatures … had them a little raw.”

He added that people are the best defense against food poisoning.

“You see something discolored, don’t eat it. … Your best form of defense is your senses,” Gellner said.

Shelby Township resident April Gagala said in an email that her best form of defense is to not even bother with the summer months.

“We keep our food safe outdoors by having our barbecue in February,” she said. “No need for refrigeration. We have been doing this for 13 years.”

Gagala added that their winter gathering began with just family, and every year it has gotten bigger and bigger.

“And now it includes friends, neighbors, out-of-towners (and more). My husband and I provide the burgers, dogs, ribs, games, and everyone brings a plate to pass,” she said.

For more information, go to www.foodsafety.gov or www.cdc.gov/ncidod/diseases/food/index.htm.