WOOSTER, Ohio -- Picnics are a staple of summertime, but they provide many opportunities for pathogens to undermine the fun.
That's apparent after 10 people were hospitalized and dozens more became ill after a July 3 company picnic in southwest Ohio. According to officials with Public Health-Dayton and Montgomery County, the culprit in at least five cases at the Germantown incident has been identified as E. coli O157:H7.
Picnic foods are especially susceptible to food safety problems because conditions often aren't sanitary, food may not be cooked properly, and heat and humidity could accelerate the growth of bacteria and other microorganisms, said Jeff LeJeune, microbiologist with Ohio State University Extension and the university's Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center.
"The most important thing people can do to keep food safe is to wash their hands thoroughly and often," LeJeune said. "Hand sanitizers and sanitizing wipes can help, but nothing replaces washing hands with soap under running water to keep hands clean, especially when you're handling food.
"And be sure the water you use to wash your hands is clean. If you're not sure clean running water is available at a picnic site, take a few gallon jugs of water with you, just to use to wash your hands."
Other important reminders from LeJeune and Linnette Goard, field specialist in food safety, selection and management for OSU Extension, include:
- Food safety starts before the picnic, at home. Follow proper food safety guidelines and practice good hygiene always. And in particular, don't prepare food for others if you have recently been ill with diarrhea.
- Keep cold foods cold. That can be tricky outdoors on a hot day. Be sure to store perishable foods in coolers with ample ice, and keep them in the shade.
- Be sure foods are cooked thoroughly. Sometimes on a hot grill, surfaces will brown quickly but internal temperatures can take much longer to reach safety levels. This is especially important for burgers -- when they're formed, any pathogens originally on the surface of the meat are spread throughout patties. Use a meat thermometer to be sure meats are cooked thoroughly to an internal temperature of 160 degrees F for ground beef or pork and 165 degrees F for poultry (ground or whole cuts). Steaks, pork chops or other whole cuts of meat can be cooked to just 145 degrees F as long as they're given a three-minute rest time before serving to allow the meat to finish cooking.
- Prevent cross-contamination. Assume raw meat contains foodborne pathogens. After handling it, thoroughly wash hands, as well as any utensils and surfaces it has come into contact with. For example, don't use the same spatula you used for placing raw burgers on the grill to remove the burgers after cooking, and don't put cooked meats on the same plate used for raw meat. In a cooler, don't place raw meat on top of vegetables, potato salad or other foods that will be eaten without being cooked first -- bacteria from the meat's juices could drip and contaminate the other foods. The best bet is to use a separate cooler for raw meats, and never use ice from that cooler in your drinks.
- Cooked foods and other perishable items should be put away and chilled thoroughly within an hour. Although the normal food safety guideline is two hours for indoor events, hot outdoor temperatures can allow any bacteria on food to multiply to dangerous levels more quickly.
- Don't drink water you're not certain is safe. Picnic sites often have nonpotable water available for restrooms or other uses, but it's not safe to drink. Be sure to bring enough water or other beverages with you so you're not tempted to drink it.
For additional information on the Germantown foodborne illness outbreak, see the area's Public Health website at http://www.phdmc.org/. Authorities continue to ask anyone who attended the July 3 company appreciation picnic who became ill afterward to contact them at 937-225-4460.