About 48 million Americans get food-borne illness per year, and of that heaving-and-hurling 48 million, 128,000 are hospitalized and 3,000 die, says the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That means roughly one in six Americans will get sick from food poisoning -- not accounting for the unlucky or idiotic souls who get ill more than once. ("But I swear that 5-day-old chimichanga was still good!")
Barring the fools and the unfortunate, the CDC's numbers mean that if I and five friends celebrate July 4 with a picnic, it will be like playing Russian Roulette. Potato Salad Roulette.
If you plan on picnicking on Monday, I say don't. But if you still insist on doing so, here are some tips to prevent food contamination and food poisoning at an outdoor barbecue or picnic. Lazy food storage is hardly worth 29 hours of puking.
Serve and store food at its proper temperature. Also, don't let it sit out. Yeah, right. A big problem with picnic food is that it's left to gurgle in the sun and bacteria creeps in. This is traditional. There's not much difference in eating potato salad that's been left on a picnic table for three hours versus eating potato salad that you pulled out of a lake.
Eat promptly. If you plan to cook meat, grill it in smaller, manageable batches so picnickers can eat it quickly. Warmed-over meat is like a hostel for bacteria. eHow suggests bringing a hot plate or a crock pot to incubate the meat for short periods. (Be sure to pack a portable generator too!) Sides can go into a preheated Thermos or be packed into Gladware and stored in an insulated cooler.
Flip that equation for cold foods. Pack it into a chilled Thermos or cooler. Make sure to dump the ice out before putting food in, so you don't end up with barbecue and bacteria slurry.
Pack things neatly in sealed containers. I'm thinking you should wrap chains around the Gladware and secure it with a series of padlocks, and then coat the whole thing in concrete and Food Save it before tossing it into the lake and heading out for pizza, but everyone says that airtight containers will do.
Wash your filthy hands thoroughly and frequently. Pretend like every smell that comes off of raw hamburger is lethal. Act like you might be asked to perform surgery at any moment. But mostly, don't form patties and then rearrange buns, or slice raw chicken and grab a handful of chips. And while you're at it, make sure raw meat and cooked meat don't share a space.
I trust most people enough to refrain from licking raw meat, but the potential bacteria exchange from protein to hand to anything else on the planet is risky. Keep a bottle of anti-bacterial nearby. Figure out a way to handle the anti-bacterial bottle without creating an infinite loop. (Grow a second pair of arms, for instance.) And, for heaven's sake, scrub under your fingernails -- all 20 of them.
Use a meat thermometer. It's astounding how many grillers stake their manhoods on their ability to eyeball the doneness of grilled meat. There are meat thermometers that talk and clip onto your belt, so there's no excuse to undercook hamburger and serve salmonella sliders. Usually, I'm fairly certain that a food critic isn't going to stumble into my backyard barbecue, so I figure I'm doing everyone a favor by cooking their hamburgers longer than requested. No pink juices of any sort are allowed in my backyard. If someone notes that their chicken "tastes gummy," we're all going to the hospital. Score a few more for the CDC.
You know to scrub the grill. But scrub the coolers, too. And the utensils. For us, summer starts when we move the coolers down from the attic and swab out the cobwebs with paper towels. Unfortunately, this tradition is revolting.
Disinfect coolers. Whether you plan to store towers of Gladware or the Arctic Sea of ice cubes and Mountain Dew in it, you could still ingest all the grime and filth clinging in a dirty cooler.
Once, I scrubbed our grilling utensils so hard the finish started coming off, which is what I get for buying cheap tools, but my stomach merrily digested all my food without protest. Just like your hands, repeatedly clean grilling utensils. Use separate knives -- don't be one of those people who uses the same knife for raw hamburger, chicken and vegetables, because it's akin to waving a salmonella wand over the entire meal. (Why are these people allowed near an open flame?)
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If you don't have access to a variety of knives, make sure you have access to hot, soapy water and clean towels. Or, better still, an autoclave.
Bring plenty of clean cloths. Using the same dirty, germ-soaked towel presents the same problem as using the same dirty, festering knife. Don't wipe a table top with the same cloth you used on the poultry cutting board, even if it "looks pretty clean." It's an even better idea to arm yourself with a roll of absorbent paper towels, paper waste be damned. Because honestly, if you're one of those people who reuses contaminated cloth towels, I cannot imagine how anyone could trust you enough to share a picnic. If you reuse paper towels, I cannot imagine anyone alive loves you enough to share a picnic.
Seriously, don't risk it. Skip the picnic. Civilization is good. Our forebears did a lot of work to build it. Why spit in their faces and eat from a community grill outdoors. I look forward to the day when we all eat like astronauts and suck our food out of toothpaste tubes and replenish fluids through a Tang IV drip.