This Is How Quickly Picnic Food Spoils in the Heat.

When you cook at home, you know you have two hours – maybe four, if you really want to hurry – to pull the food out of room temperature air and into your stomach. A little more and this chicken salad platter is a big bacterial hype. But if you’re going on a picnic in 90-degree weather, the food spoils faster – much faster.

In the sweltering heat, you only have one hour to work. This means that the fruit salad should stay in the refrigerator until lunchtime, and the freshly cooked barbecue shouldn’t stay on the picnic table forever.

Food safety expert Ben Chapman calculated the one-hour rule, expecting it to be overly cautious. But it turns out that Salmonella bacteria easily multiply tenfold in just over an hour at 92 degrees. Another common germs that cause food poisoning, Staphylococcus aureus, lasts a little longer – a half to two hours. In any case, if you used the same two-hour rule that applies indoors, you would have a chance of getting sick.

How to avoid food poisoning in hot weather

First, find out which foods are spoiled by the heat. Spoiler alert: Most of them. This includes cooked vegetables, cooked grains (such as rice), and meats. Fruits with a low acid content, such as cantaloupe, should also be kept chilled if left on the table for a while.

Commonly safe foods include dry foods such as bread and condiments such as salsa or condiments that are very acidic. However, once you put them on non-acidic food – like vinegar pasta salad dressing – all bets are lost. Vinegar may slow down the growth of bacteria a little, but it’s not enough to take the risk.

Here’s what Chapman recommends for picnics to avoid hurting yourself and others:

  • Store food out of direct sunlight. This heats up even faster. (Bacteria grow fastest around 95 degrees – about the same as our core body temperature.)
  • Plan ahead. If the meat comes off the grill but people aren’t ready to eat, take it inside (if you’re in your backyard) or refrigerate it. Keep track of the time.
  • Wash your damn hands . (My wording, not his.) Many of the bacteria that cause food poisoning we carry with us on our hands. They either live on us naturally (eg Staph. Aureus ) or can be transmitted through other foods (eg E. coli , which can come free with raw hamburger meat).

This can disrupt your normal meal preparation routine, but it can be done with a little planning ahead of time. If you’re barbecuing away from home, order a picnic gazebo next to the restrooms and bring a fridge and a pile of ice to transport your treats and take home leftovers. You will be glad when you go home without food poisoning.


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