Watch That Potato Salad!

“Watch That Potato Salad!” Ensign, July 1987, 72–73

Watch That Potato Salad!

Warm summer weather is perfect for picnics, camping—and bacteria growth. Food poisoning bacteria begin to grow at temperatures above 60° F (16° C), and hot summer temperatures allow them to multiply quickly. Food poisoning usually causes flu-like symptoms, but it becomes a serious problem when it attacks children, the elderly, or people with chronic illnesses. A few simple precautions will protect your family.

Safe Preparation

Wash your hands thoroughly before preparing food. Your hands continually pick up bacteria, and these organisms settle around your fingernails and in skin folds. Only vigorous washing with hot, soapy water will get rid of them. If clean water isn’t available at your picnic spot, wash your hands with disposable wet towels before working with food. Raw meat and poultry carry bacteria, so after handling these items, wash your hands again before touching other food.

Make sure your working area is clean, too. Wash bowls, utensils, and countertops. Don’t reuse plates or utensils after they’ve touched raw meats or poultry. Use a fork or spoon, rather than your hands, for mixing food whenever possible.

Cool Traveling and Storage

If you’re taking a sack lunch or uninsulated picnic basket, put something cold—a cold drink, a snug-lidded container filled with ice, or a packet of commercial freezing gel—with your food. You can also freeze sandwiches the night before. They will thaw in time for lunch and will keep everything else cool too. (Lettuce, tomatoes, and mayonnaise don’t freeze well. Pack them in separate containers to add to sandwiches just before eating.) Use a thermos to keep milk or juice cold. And no matter what, keep your lunch in the coolest available spot.

Perishable foods—meats or poultry, dairy products, potato or macaroni salad, deviled eggs, custard or cream pies—must be kept in a cooler at below 40° F (4° C). It’s especially important to keep mayonnaise-based foods on ice. Mayonnaise, with its high acid content, is not a candidate for food poisoning. But once you combine other foods with the mayonnaise, the acid content is lowered and bacteria grows.

Coolers should be well insulated and packed with ice or commercial freezing gel. Cold canned drinks can also help keep other food cool. Keep the lid on the cooler as much as possible, and further insulate it by wrapping it in newspapers or a sleeping bag and putting it in the shade while you hike, fish, or swim. Food should be safe as long as ice chunks remain in the cooler. If you plan on being out for several days, don’t take more food that must be kept cool than you can use early in your trip; use canned or dehydrated foods later on.

Return food to the ice chest as soon as you finish eating. If you are away from a refrigerator no longer than four or five hours and your perishables are on ice except while being cooked and served, you can save the leftovers; otherwise, throw them out.

Outdoor Cooking

Thaw meats and poultry in the refrigerator for a day before using them. Never thaw them at room temperature, where bacteria can multiply in the outer layers while the inner layers are still frozen. If the meat is still partially frozen when you’re ready to use it, just cook it a little longer.

Be sure to cook foods thoroughly. Hamburger, pork chops, and ribs should be cooked until all the pink is gone; if you like your steak rare or medium-rare, remember there’s a chance bacteria can survive the short cooking time. Poultry should be cooked until there is no red in the joints and fresh fish until it “flakes” when tested with a fork.

Cool-Weather Outings

Bacteria grows between 60° F (16° C) and 125° F (52° C). So if you’re taking a hot casserole or stew as your main dish on a cool-weather outing, keep it hot! Above 140° F (60° C) is best. (At 140° F, liquid is hot to the touch.) A thermos bottle keeps food at safe temperatures if the seal around the stopper fits tightly; check the seal before each use. Just before you fill the thermos, rinse it with boiling water; then heat the food to as high a temperature as possible before pouring it in. Discard any cooled leftovers when you get home.

A thoroughly cooked casserole stays safe if you wrap several layers of aluminum foil around it, followed by newspapers or a towel. Put the wrapped casserole in a cardboard box and pack other items around it. Then serve it as soon as you reach your destination. Again, throw away leftovers.

Don’t let food poisoning ruin your next outing. Safety precautions take only a little time and free you to enjoy yourself to the fullest.