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Follow these food safety practices this summer at picnics and potlucks

hamburger on a plate
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Invitations to picnics, potlucks, cookouts and outdoor gatherings are plentiful during summer months but eating outside presents some food safety challenges.

Renee Boyer, a food safety and microbiology professor and head of the Virginia Tech Department of Food Science & Technology, said a good rule is to “keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold.”

Leftovers should be promptly cleaned up after eating so food doesn’t stay in the temperature ‘danger zone’ – between 41 degrees and 140 degrees – where bacteria rapidly multiply and can become hazardous.

Food shouldn’t be left at room temperature for more than two hours, or one hour if it’s 90 degrees or above outside.

“Always err on the side of caution,” said Tammy Brawley, chef and host of the Heart of the Home cooking segment on Real Virginia television program. Brawley, who holds a ServSafe certification in food safety, suggests using caution with mayonnaise-based foods.

“Anything that has mayo in it, I would put on ice,” she said. “If you’ve got a bowl of potato salad, put a tray of ice underneath it.”

Homemade mayonnaise, which typically uses raw eggs, spoils easily. Commercial mayonnaise, on the other hand, contains pasteurized eggs, acids and vinegars that aren’t as susceptible to bacteria growth. But it’s an ingredient commonly used in dishes like potato, chicken or macaroni salads and deviled eggs that are risky when left out.

“Many people are surprised to learn that cut fruits and veggies require time and temperature control for safety,” Boyer said. “That bowl of cut watermelon should be treated the same as the bowl of chicken salad.”

When planning an outdoor event, use a picnic food safety checklist, and follow other food safety practices like avoiding cross contamination between foods and sanitizing surfaces.

Always wash your hands or use hand sanitizer, and keep utensils and serving dishes clean to avoid introducing bacteria.

Pack a cooler and replenish it with ice, and bring containers, covers and lids, and a tip-sensitive thermometer.

Food safety continues to be a serious issue, as it’s estimated there are about 48 million cases of foodborne illnesses each year – that’s one in six Americans – leading to approximately 128,000 hospitalizations and 3,000 deaths.

Crystal Graham

Crystal Graham

Crystal Abbe Graham is the regional editor of Augusta Free Press. A 1999 graduate of Virginia Tech, she has worked for nearly 25 years as a reporter and editor for several Virginia publications, written a book, and garnered more than a dozen Virginia Press Association awards for writing and graphic design. She was the co-host of "Viewpoints," a weekly TV news show, and co-host of Virginia Tonight, a nightly TV news show. Her work on "Virginia Tonight" earned her a national Telly award for excellence in television.