Picnic Safety: How Long Can You Keep Food Out at Your Labor Day Picnic? 

Picnics, parties and gathering with friends and family always have one thing in common: lots of good food. Whether it’s a backyard cookout or a buffet-style feast with everyone bringing a dish, Labor Day menus typically have lots of creamy pasta salads, dips and dressings. But with plenty of late summer sunshine and hot temperatures, you want to make sure you can keep all your refrigerated foods and grilled items safe to eat when you are feeding a crowd. Germs grow faster in warm weather, so you want to know how long you can keep food out at your Labor Day picnic. 

Big numbers, serious side effects. Food safety is important to get right. Each year, one in six people in the United States  – about 48 million adults and children – fall ill from food poisoning. Of these, about 128,000 people are hospitalized and 3,000 cases are fatal, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.  

Some groups of people are more likely to fall ill from food poisoning, including people over 65, children younger than 5, pregnant women, and people with weakened immune systems from having cancer, diabetes or other conditions.  

Symptoms. Symptoms of food poisoning can be harsh. They include: 

  • Diarrhea for more than three days. 
  • Bloody diarrhea, or diarrhea combined with a fever of 102 degrees or higher. 
  • Vomiting to the point where you cannot keep down any liquids. 
  • Dehydration 

According to the CDC, there are four main steps to take to prevent food poisoning. Each just takes a few extra minutes as you prep food and workspaces. 

Clean. Wash work surfaces before, during and after preparing food. Wash hands frequently.  

Separate. All raw meat, poultry, eggs and seafood should be separated from cooked foods. Always use separate cutting boards and utensils for raw and cooked foods. Keep raw foods away from cooked foods, even when they are being refrigerated. 

Cook. When you are cooking food, get it to the right internal temperature. Use a food thermometer to be sure you hit that mark. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, these are the safe temperatures:  

  • Cook poultry (whole or ground) to 165 F. 
  • Cook beef, pork, lamb and veal steaks, chops and roasts to 145 F. For safety, allow meat to rest for at least three minutes before carving or consuming. 
  • Cook ground beef, pork, lamb and veal to 160 F. 
  • Cook egg dishes to 160 F. 
  • Cook fish to 145 F. 

Chill. Here is the important tip: Keep your cold foods refrigerated until it’s time to serve them, and put them on ice, if possible, if you sit them outside in the heat. Refrigerate all leftovers within two hours of cooking them, or within an hour if they have been sitting out in a temperature above 90 degrees – this includes if a dish has been sitting on a picnic table or left in a hot car. If you don’t have a refrigerator close by, get the food into a cooler and on ice.  


Photo credit: Getty Images

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