Prevent foodborne illness at your summertime picnic

By: Tiffany Esshaki | C&G Newspapers | Published June 24, 2015

 Cold items should only be kept out of the fridge for four hours depending on the temperature outside.

Cold items should only be kept out of the fridge for four hours depending on the temperature outside.


METRO DETROIT — Hot, humid days spent sizzling under the summer sun are one of the few antidotes to a long Michigan winter.

Soaking up the heat is fine, of course, as long as it’s not your food that’s doing the sweating.

The Oakland County Health Division recently released a list of food safety reminders as residents get ready to head out for summer picnics. Tony Drautz, environmental health administrator for the division, said they like to give cooks a brush-up on the basics this time of year, when meals tend to migrate outdoors.

One of the most important tips to remember, the Health Division explained, is actually one to be implemented year-round: internal meat temperature. Whether you’re out at the grill or using the oven, be sure to pop a meat thermometer into your main dish to make sure it’s reached a safe internal temperature before serving it up. That includes:

• 145 degrees for steaks and roasts, with a three-minute rest time.

• 160 degrees for ground meat.

• 165 degrees for poultry.

Cyndee Crawford is a certified dietary manager and serves as the manager of culinary wellness at Henry Ford Macomb Hospital. She said that while 10 years ago she might’ve been comfortable with eyeballing her meats on the grill to make sure they’re done, these days it’s just not worth the risk.

“People still order (beef) medium rare, and it’s kind of like you’re taking a chance,” she said. “Unless you get it to that 165 degrees Fahrenheit, you don’t know you’ve killed all the E. coli in it. And if you have a compromised immune system, like a young child or an older person, you might not have the immune system to fight it.”

As important as it is to thoroughly cook foods, chefs should also be sure to keep those hot foods hot and cold foods cold. Chilled items like fruit and cold salads need to be kept below 40 degrees, and hot foods like baked beans, for instance, should be kept about 140 degrees. Letting either stray outside of the desired range could mean trouble, Crawford said.

“When it’s warm out, it’s easier to get into that danger zone,” she said. “(For cold foods), letting them get between 41 and 70 degrees isn’t as bad, but once you get to 70 and 135, bacteria and stuff like that just grow exponentially. You really need to limit time without refrigeration.”

Ideally, cooked foods or cold items would only be kept out of the fridge for four hours depending, of course, on the temperature outside. But, she stressed, that clock starts ticking as soon as you pull it out of the fridge to prepare it.

“If I cut a melon, that takes half an hour. The four hours is a total window, and after that it should really be discarded,” she said.

Transporting foods in a cooler with ice packs, setting serving dishes in ice and serving meals out of the sun will help prevent illness, as well. If you can’t control the temp, your four-hour window becomes two hours.

Just because you’re enjoying a casual cookout doesn’t mean you can get more relaxed on the cleanup rules you enforce in the kitchen. Keep hands washed with soap and warm water, along with cooking surfaces and utensils, to reduce the chance of cross-contamination. Make sure fruits and veggies are washed before serving, and store all of the leftovers in airtight containers.

Finally, if disaster does strike, make sure you see a doctor so the source of your illness can be properly determined.

“It’s hard to say how many cases of foodborne illness occur (each summer) because most go unreported,” said Drautz. “Most people associate food poisoning with the last thing they ate, when depending on the illness, it could get you sick a day or two later. The doctor will need to get a history to see if it truly meets the definition of a foodborne illness or not.”