OSCEOLA COUNTY — Summertime often includes picnics and barbecues. A few simple steps can reduce the chance of foodborne illnesses, which can quickly drain the fun out of a summer get-together.

Foodsafety.gov offers four key steps to food safety year-round: clean, separate, cook and chill — which put emphasis on safe food preparation and handling practices. Some of those steps may require extra planning when dining outdoors.


Everything used to prepare the meal should be washed with soap and water, including surfaces, utensils and hands. Fruits and vegetables should be washed prior to eating, but not meat.

When planning a picnic or cook-out away from home, think ahead, advises Kara Lynch, a Michigan State University Extension food safety educator.

“Wash anything that needs washed prior to leaving,” Lynch said. “Cut up your vegetables and fruits before you go. Fruits especially are something you want to wash before you eat. You might want to consider taking grapes or peelable fruits, so they can be washed easily in advance or peeled on-site.

“You shouldn’t wash raw meat because that can spread more bacteria,” she continued. “If bacteria is on meat, it’s probably all throughout the meat as well, and the only way to get rid of it is cook it to the proper internal temperature.”

While noting the “gold standard” is washing with soap and water, that’s not always possible, Lynch said, recommending sanitary wipes to wipe off surfaces and using hand sanitizers if water isn’t readily available.


Separate plates and utensils should be used for raw and cooked meats. Once dishes or utensils have touched raw meat or poultry, don’t reuse them with cooked or ready-to-eat food. In the cooler, keep raw meat and produce wrapped separately to prevent cross-contamination.

Full coolers will maintain cold temperatures better than partially-filled ones. Any remaining space should be filled with ice.

“The only problem with ice is if the cooler is in a 100-some degree car on a 90-degree day, the ice might melt faster than you anticipate,” said Ted Dohnal, District Health Department No. 10 food safety supervisor based in Mecosta County.

When possible, coolers should be put in the shade or a shelter to protect them from the sun. Anyone who opens a cooler and finds their food floating in ice water should test food temperatures with a thermometer to make sure it’s still safe to eat.


When cooking meat on a grill, a food thermometer is the safest option. The color of meat is not an indicator of safety.

“A lot of people have had the experience where they buy ground beef and don’t use it right away and it gets gray,” Lynch said. “That happens inside the meat, too. If it’s in a patty, you can’t judge by color if it’s done cooking because it may already have been gray to begin with.”

Food thermometers should be used to make sure meat is at the proper internal temperature: 165 degrees Fahrenheit for poultry, 160 degrees F for ground meats and 145 degrees F with a rest time of three minutes for beef, pork, lamb and veal.


From the time the food leaves the grill or the cooler, there is a two-hour window during which it can sit out safely. If the temperature is above 90 degrees F, however, that timeframe is only one hour.

“It’s easy when you’re having a social gathering to let things slide and let food sit out,” Lynch said. “I would reinforce you should clean things up when everybody is done eating as much as possible and put the food away to keep it out of the danger zone.”

Cold foods should remain below 41 degrees F. Ready-to-eat foods like potato salad should be packed into several smaller containers when possible so not all the food is sitting on the table; some of it can be kept in the cooler until needed, Lynch said. She also recommended not bringing more than necessary, or bulking up the meal with more shelf-stable items that don’t require refrigeration.

“You want to keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold,” Dohnal said. “Potato salad, chicken salad — as long as they’re cold, they can keep for relatively long periods of time. That’s where the thermometer comes back — food thermometers can check cold temperatures as well as hot.”

Digital food thermometers usually have a temperature range they can detect printed on them, are relatively inexpensive and easy to find in stores, he added.

Foodsafety.gov is a collaborative website of several government agencies including the Centers for Disease Control, National Institutes of Health, Food and Drug Administration, the White House and the United States Departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services.