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Freezer packages of ground beef and prepared beef patties stocked in a tan cooler in the bed of a red pickup.
When packing foods in a cooler for a picnic or cookout, include plenty of ice or frozen gel packs to keep foods at 40 F or below. Keep drinks in a separate cooler. (Photo by Mitchell Alcala, OSU Agriculture)

Picnics and cookouts require vigilant food safety

Friday, June 28, 2024

Media Contact: Trisha Gedon | Sr. Communications Specialist | 405-744-3625 |

The summer season is full of fun with outdoor activities such as swimming, riding bikes and catching fireflies. It is also a time for picnics and cookouts, and safety must be paramount to avoid any health risks.

Christi Evans, Oklahoma State University Extension assistant food safety specialist, said keeping cold foods cold during transport to the picnic or cookout site is vital. Also, prepare before leaving home. If burgers are on the menu, make ground beef or turkey into patties ahead of time.

“Pack the coolers with plenty of ice or frozen gel packs. Cold foods should be stored at 40 F or below to prevent bacterial growth,” Evans said. “Normally, perishable foods should never be left at room temperature for more than two hours, but the heat of an Oklahoma summer cuts that timeframe in half.”

A hot summer day will require plenty of cold beverages for everyone. Have separate coolers for food and drinks. This will keep perishable foods from being exposed to the warmer temperatures when coolers are opened frequently.

Evans suggests keeping an appliance thermometer in the food coolers to eliminate the guesswork of determining if the potato salad and deviled eggs maintained a temperature of less than 40 F and are safe to eat.

“When packing the coolers, keep raw meat, poultry and seafood separate from the ready-to-eat food you’ve prepared for the cookout. This will help avoid cross-contamination,” she said.

While food safety is important, so is cleanliness. Evans suggests bringing an extra jug of water, soap and paper towels for a dedicated hand-washing station. Moist, disposable towelettes are another option.

“Once you’ve arrived at the cookout or picnic site, ensure your hands are clean before handling any food,” she said.

According to Ravi Jadeja, a food safety specialist with the Robert M. Kerr Food and Agricultural Products Center at OSU, cooking meats to the proper internal temperature is an important part of preventing foodborne illnesses.

“It’s always a good idea to use a food thermometer to ensure meat is thoroughly cooked to a safe temperature,” he said. “If grill space is limited and meats are cooked in phases, use a disposable chafing dish to keep the hot foods at above 140 F. At a minimum, wrap cooked foods tightly in foil and keep near the grill. Be sure to serve cooked food promptly.”

For safe food consumption, meats must be cooked to the following temperatures (in Fahrenheit):

  • Beef, pork, lamb and veal: 145 F (allow three minutes to rest before consuming)
  • Ground meats: 160 F
  • Chicken: 165 F

“Always use a clean platter when removing meats and poultry from the grill or smoker to avoid spreading bacteria,” Jadeja said. “Also, discard any leftover meat marinades. Don’t use them as a dipping sauce because the juice can contain bacteria, making it unsafe for consumption.”

Food safety doesn’t stop once the food is cooked. Consumers should put all leftover food back into the coolers no more than one hour after cooking and preferably just as soon as everyone is finished eating.

“Summertime is a great time for hosting a cookout at the lake, on a campout or in your backyard,” Jadeja said. “Following proper food-handling and safety tips will ensure it’s not only fun but safe.”

OSU Extension offers additional food safety information online.

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