What says summer better than a cooler and a grill? Perhaps a fish or crab line off a boat or dock? Whatever your plans are for the summer, this article will provide some guidelines for food safety outside of the home kitchen.
Whether you’re heading out for an afternoon or for several days in a car or campsite, coolers are probably going to be part of your planning. Packing and using your coolers efficiently is important to keeping the contents from spoiling.
Styrofoam and soft-sided coolers may work for day trips, but for anything longer invest in a hard-sided cooler with a snug-fitting top. Metal coolers will absorb and hold more heat from the sun, so plastic is your best bet. Wheels are handy, and a drain is a must.
Every time a cooler is opened, precious cool air escapes. Consider having two coolers, one with food for meals and another for beverages and snacks. You’ll be able to keep your foods at a more stable temperature if the cooler isn’t being opened throughout the day.
Store your cooler in the shade. If none is available, drape the cooler in a blanket, sleeping bag, or tarp. If you’re going to be in an extremely hot area, you might consider covering the cooler with a reflective material like aluminized bubble wrap (available at home improvement stores); you can even line your cooler with it for extra insulation.
Pre-chill all food that will be in the cooler. Freeze bottles of water and non-carbonated drinks like boxed fruit juices – these will keep other foods cold as they thaw. You can even freeze water in heavy-duty zip top bags. Pack your cooler in reverse order, so that what you will use first is on top (sometimes called LIFO: Last In, First Out). The less you have to dig around in the cooler, the better.
Pack as much of your food as possible into water-tight bags, so that it doesn’t get soggy as ice melts. If you bring raw or frozen meats, make sure you have them well sealed so that no juices can leak into the ice or onto the other foods in the cooler. Pack meat next to ice to keep it as cold as possible.
Pack the smallest possible containers of condiments, and once they have been opened, store them in the food cooler. Do not leave food out in the heat any longer than necessary; put cold items away as soon as possible. Food left out longer than two hours should be discarded; in extremely hot weather, shorten that time.
Uncut fruits with skin on do not need to be stored in your cooler, but wash all fruits and vegetables before leaving home so that you don’t need to do it in your camp kitchen.
Leave room in your cooler for plenty of ice, and plan to add new ice daily. Block ice will last the longest. Gel packs and blue ice may only last only a day, depending the temperature and how often the cooler is opened. Water from melted ice is very cold, so don’t drain your cooler until you have new ice to replace the water you drain.
If you are not going to be able to purchase ice during a multi-day trip, you can consider dry ice. Dry ice does not melt (it sublimates, or becomes gas), and it requires special handling. It will freeze anything it is next to–your food, your cooler (which will crack), or your hands. With careful use, dry ice can extend the safety of your perishables.
RAW MEATS AND SEAFOOD
Handling raw meat, poultry, and seafood is challenging in a kitchen with a refrigerator and sink; in a campsite those challenges are multiplied. The same core principles apply–keep meats cold until use, avoid cross-contamination, and cook to the recommended temperature–it’s just harder to do in a camp kitchen.
As regular readers of Food Safety News are aware, raw meat may harbor bacteria that you don’t want to consume. Raw beef can contain Salmonella or E. coli, raw chicken may be contaminated with Campylobacter or Salmonella, shellfish may contain Norovirus or Vibrio–the list is long and seems to get longer. Protect yourself with proper cooking and cleanup of any raw meats and seafood.
Your meat thermometer is critical to your camp kitchen. Whether you’re cooking over a fire or on a camp stove, make sure the internal temperature of your meat reaches USDA recommended temperatures (pdf).
If you do bring raw meat, consider cooking it for your first meal, so that you avoid the risk of your cooler failing to keep it at temperature. Try to do as much prep as you can before you leave home. By having your burgers pre-made and ready to go on the grill, you avoid raw meat touching bowls, utensils, cutting boards, plates, and tablecloths.
Freezing meat before your trip is tricky–if the meat is not fully thawed when you cook it, it is very possible that the portions of the meat will not reach the necessary temperature to kill any pathogens.
Be meticulous about cleaning up anything that comes into contact with the raw meat (including your hands) before you serve or eat.
It’s possible to avoid the cross contamination issue by cooking meat before you leave home and either eating it cold or bringing it to temperature in your camp kitchen.
As detailed in Part 1 of this series, it’s important to check with the local health department and/or department of fish and wildlife before you fish in an area, to see if there are any advisories about local seafood.
The USDA recommends that you scale, gut, and clean fin fish as soon as they’re caught. Live fish can be kept on stringers or in live wells, as long as they have enough water and enough room to move and breathe. It is further recommended that you wrap fish, both whole and cleaned, in water-tight plastic and store on ice. It’s best to keep 3-4 inches of ice on the bottom of the cooler, then alternate layers of fish and ice. As with all coolers, store your fish cooler out of the sun and cover with an insulator like a tarp or blanket. Once you get the fish home, eat them within 1-2 days or freeze them. For top quality, use frozen fish within 3 to 6 months.
Crabs, lobsters, and other shellfish must be kept alive until cooked. You can store them in live wells or out of water in a bushel or laundry basket under wet burlap or seaweed. Crabs and lobsters are best eaten the day they’re caught. Live oysters should be cooked within 7-10 days. Live mussels and clams should be cooked within 4-5 days. Eating raw shellfish is not recommended; people with liver disorders or compromised immune systems are especially at risk.
Hand-washing is an important part of staying clear of foodborne illness–it’s estimated that 25 to 40 percent of foodborne bacteria gets into our bodies via our hands. Wash your hands thoroughly before preparing or eating meals or snacks, and after touching fish, bait, or any raw meat. Make sure everyone cleans their hands after bathroom stops. If water and soap are not available, use sanitizer and wipes in the interim, but wash hands upon returning to
your campsite or water source.
Wash pots, utensils, and dishes in water that has boiled and is still almost too hot to touch. Rinse dishes in boiled/potable water, and dry with a clean towel or paper towels. Make sure to dispose of any soapy water at least 200 feet from any natural water, whether it is fresh or salt.
Part I of this series contains more detail on water purification, outdoor sanitation, and foods to pack when away from ice and coolers.
Have a great trip!
Don’t Get Sick: The Hidden Dangers of Camping and Hiking, by Buck Tilton and Rick Bennett.