Food Safety in the outdoors

Australia has a worldwide reputation for its great outdoor lifestyle.Barbecues, picnics and camping trips are a great way to enjoy our perfect climate. But eating in the outdoors has risks – other than mosquitoes and ants. The food you take on picnics, barbecues and camping trips, and even to school for lunch, is kept out of its regular environment – the fridge, freezer and pantry – for longer times than the food you eat at home. This may have food safety implications.

What is different about eating in the outdoors?

  • Outdoors you must rely on a cooler, such as an esky, to keep food cold. A cooler is not as effective as a fridge in keeping food cold. Food temperatures can rise to within the temperature danger zone (5°C–60°C), allowing pathogens (bacteria which cause foodborne illness) to grow.
  • Many foods taken on picnics are pre-prepared, such as salads, rice dishes, quiche, and cold cooked meat dishes. These foods need to be cooked and stored properly to reduce the likelihood of food safety problems.
  • Hand washing facilities may be inadequate, with no hot water or soap available.
  • Safe water may be unavailable.

Tips for picnics and barbecues

  • Put meat into a cooler when travelling. Meat juices can easily leak onto pre-prepared food, so put raw meat in leak proof containers. Just in case, place the meat on the bottom of the cooler away from ready-to-eat food.
  • If it doesn’t affect passenger safety, travel with the cooler in the air-conditioned part of the car. If you have to put it in the boot, cover it with blankets to prevent it from warming up.
  • Cut meat into serving-size pieces before leaving home and have all salads ready to eat. This reduces the need to handle food at the picnic site.
  • Don’t pack food if it has just been cooked and is still warm. This includes baby formula. Coolers cannot cool food. It is best to refrigerate cooked food overnight before packing. Other perishable food and drink, such as deli products, cooked meat and dairy products must also be cold when put in the cooler.
  • Always pack plenty of ice blocks, frozen bricks or gel packs around the food. Frozen drinks can serve as extra cool bricks.
  • Perishables, such as salads, quiches and cold meats, should be out of the fridge or cooler for no longer than four hours (or less if you live in a hot climate). After this time they should be thrown out.
  • Cooked meat can be left warm on a corner of the barbecue or covered on a plate for late arrivals. Just ensure it is protected from flies, and abide by the four-hour rule (see above).
  • Disposable hand wipes or alcohol-based hand wash are an option if there is no clean water for hand washing.
  • Remember to dispose of your litter responsibly.

For school lunches

  • Fruit and spreads, such as vegemite and jam are fine for school lunches because they generally do not need refrigeration.
  • Refrigerated foods, that are stored in a cool place and are eaten within four to five hours of preparation, are also acceptable.
  • Keeping school lunches cool is easy:
  • Use insulated lunch boxes or coolers.
  • Freeze a drink bottle containing water, fruit juice or cordial, place in a watertight plastic bag, and include with the lunch. Or you can use a lunch box with a ‘built-in’ water bottle/freezer brick.
  • If you still cannot keep the food cold, don’t include the following foods in the lunchbox: meats, including pastes (dried meat such as beef jerky is safe); seafood; cooked leftovers; soft cheeses; and other highly perishable food which you would normally keep in the fridge.
  • Avoid packing perishable food that has just been cooked, such as meatloaf or boiled eggs. Such food should always be cooled in the refrigerator first.

Additional tips for camping

  • When you have chosen your camping site, move your cooler from the car into the shade as soon as possible. You will need to keep moving it as the sun moves.
  • Perishable food is generally unsuitable for camping excursions unless you have access to a refrigerator. It is best to carry and use dry, UHT and canned products. Pack all perishables in leak proof containers.
  • It is a good idea to divide perishable food into one-meal lots and pack them in the cooler in reverse order to the order in which they will be used. This makes it easier to access what you require quickly, as the cooler should be open no longer than is absolutely necessary. Frozen meat can be kept in a cooler for two days and frozen stews for one day. They should be cooked well before eating. Never save leftovers.
  • Always wash your hands before handling food, after touching raw food and after going to the toilet. At least 30 seconds washing in hot, soapy water is the recommended procedure. Use disposable wipes or alcohol-based hand wash if necessary.
  • Keep utensils used for preparing raw food away from ready-to-eat food and wash them well in soapy water before using them again.
  • You may need to boil drinking water or use disinfecting tablets. No matter how isolated your camping site, there is a risk of pathogens in the water.
  • Keep the campsite as clean as possible. Birds and animals can be a source of food poisoning bacteria, so don’t leave food and utensils lying about.

One last reminder

  • Wash hands and utensils in hot, soapy water before handling food and after touching raw food.
  • Keep cold food as cold as possible in a cooler.
  • Keep juices from raw meats away from ready-to-eat food to avoid cross contamination with pathogens.
  • Keep hot food steaming hot. Cook meats properly and make sure any stews come to the boil.

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