© copyright 2005, by Gary Benton
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Like many people in North America, there is little I enjoy more than a good barbeque or cooking over an open fire. All of you know the situation; you load up the family and head out to camp for the weekend or to spend the afternoon at your favorite picnic spot. Rarely do we give the foods or drinks we take along a second thought. While our intentions are to just relax and have a good time, we can often be setting ourselves up to get sick. According to the USDA food related illness increase over 150 percent during the summer months and I suspect that figure is low, because I don't think most minor cases of food poisoning ever get reported.
Food poisoning can usually be identified, though the symptoms can vary by type of bacteria causing the illness, by severe diarrhea, nausea, chills, fever, gas pains, and perhaps vomiting (pretty similar to the flu). The incubation period from food poisoning can be from within the hour to up to two weeks or so. There are a large number of illnesses that can result from the poor handing of foods (such as E coli, Salmonella, Campylobacter and others), so if you're interested in more information check online. What I find most interesting is that the majority of these illnesses can be prevented.
Store all foods properly. Keep your ice chest cold and I have found using gel ice packs or blocks of ice do a better job than crushed ice. Also, I usually keep a fridge thermometer in the chest to make sure everything stays at the proper temperature. Additionally, never leave your cooler in the trunk or inside of your car because the temperature can get very high during the summer. Pull the chest or cooler out and place in under a shady tree. And, keep the kids soft drinks in a separate cooler, so they are not constantly opening and closing the container with your foods in it to get a drink.
Foods should be placed in the ice chest in sealed containers (plastic with snap on lids work fine) and not wrapped in plastic wrap or aluminum foil. Do store anything in paper bags because they just make a mess after they get wet. The reason to use sealed containers is to control the possibility of contamination from one food to another due to leakage. As the temperature in your chest goes up frozen foods will start to thaw or if they sit long enough they will start to leak. Cross contamination of foods is a big concern when eating outdoors, so separate don't contaminate.
Another big concern is keeping everything clean, so wash your hands before cooking and after handing any raw foods. Some of you may laugh at this, but I also use different utensils when I handle raw and cooked meats to avoid cross contamination. I also make sure I never place cooked meat on a plate or in a container that has had raw meat on it until I have washed it with soap and water. Good solid hygiene while cooking can reduce your risks of getting food poisoning a great deal.
When using a charcoal grill insure the charcoal is glowing red and has a gray powder on the surfaces (this is a good idea when cooking over a campfire as well). Electric grills or gas grills should be heated on high for at least fifteen minutes to kill any bacteria on the cooking surface. Oh, and make sure all frozen meats are completely thawed out prior to cooking. Once again, some of you may laugh, but I suggest you use a meat thermometer to insure your meats are cooked properly to kill all bacteria. I cook burgers to 160 degrees, chicken 180 degrees, steaks 150 degrees, and fresh fish until I am sure it has cooked thoroughly. All hotdog's sold in the stores these days have already been precooked, but they should still be heated until they are piping hot throughout. As the meat cooks turn it frequently and move it around on the cooking surface so it cooks evenly, since not all spots on your grill are as hot as others.
Immediately (in hot weather the quicker the better) after eating, store all leftovers in a rigid container and place them in your ice chest, or discard them. It is very important that they be placed in your ice chest quickly, because bacteria grow rapidly at room temperatures and at high temperature (90-100 degrees) they increase even faster.
Most of the cases of food poisoning experienced from outdoor cooking can be prevented by the proper storage of food containers, good hygiene, proper cooking, and the immediate care of all leftovers. Remember to keep all meats properly stored in containers, keep them cold, and cook ‘em up hot! And, if in doubt just throw it out.
Have a safe summer and I'll see you on the trails.