Pack the vehicle — it’s time for a summer vacation.
Whether the trip is a day-long jaunt up the mountain or a long break across the country, it’s important to keep food safety in mind when packing food along.
Prevention of foodborne illness becomes more of a concern when summer temperatures and hot cars increase the opportunity for bacteria in foods to multiply. Bacteria can reach dangerous levels within as little as one to two hours in warm environments, and watch out for the “temperature danger zone” (41 F to 140 F).
The following tips will help ensure summer plans include safe food for any outing.
Coolers and cold source
The first step to packing food safely begins with selecting a cooler with adequate insulation, a tight fitting lid and preferably a drain plug to make cleaning easier. One with inside storage bins or trays will keep foods separate from melting ice. Consider packing separate coolers for food and drinks to minimize cold air escaping when you open and close the lid. Because a full cooler will stay cold longer, plan to fill remaining cooler space with an additional cold source or fruits and nonperishables like nut butters or bread.
Next, consider the cold source. Making your own ice can save money. Since blocks of ice keep longer than ice cubes, half-gallon jugs or cartons can be filled with water and frozen to make ice blocks. Smaller recycled soda or water bottles also can be cleaned, refilled with fresh water and kept frozen to grab and go. Other cold source options include frozen gel packs or ice cubes packed in freezer bags. Also, freezing ahead the meat, milk and juice boxes you are taking allows these items to serve as a cold source as they thaw.
Pack it right
When it’s time to pack the food, pack so the first foods to be used are near the top. Separate and seal same-type foods together in plastic zip-locked bags to combat cross-contamination and make them easier to locate. Double seal any raw meats to keep any bacteria-laden juices from contaminating other foods.
Distribute cold sources evenly throughout the cooler, such as layering 3 to 4 inches of ice in between foods. If you are camping, plan for those situations when no ice is available to replenish the cooler. Non-perishable nut butters, honey, trail mix, canned or dried meats, and fruits and vegetables that require no refrigeration can offer a safe alternative.
A few remaining necessities should be added before leaving home. Pack a few empty plastic containers with lids for storing opened canned items. Plan for hand washing and clean up by bringing along disposable wipes, hand sanitizing lotion and/or biodegradable soap and extra water.
Last but not least, place a food thermometer inside the cooler to monitor temperature along the way. Cooler temperature must be maintained at 41 F or below to ensure food safety.
On the road
It’s best to keep the cooler out of direct sunlight in the coolest part of car, instead of the trunk. Covering the cooler with a blanket or wet towel can provide further insulation from hot windows.
Leave the extra sodas or other carbonated drinks behind, as these could explode in a hot car — once I had a dozen canned carbonated drinks in the back of my brand new car, which had a hatchback. When I picked up the drinks later that sunny day, six exploded. I had liquid from one end of my car to the other.
When stopped, park in the shade and remember to monitor time perishable foods spend out of the cooler. Discard any foods left out for more than two hours, or one hour if the outside temperature is above 90 F. During the trip, continue to monitor cooler temperature, and add fresh ice as needed to maintain proper temperature.
Upon returning home, if any remaining foods are sitting in water, they should be discarded. Most importantly, at any time, WHEN IN DOUBT, THROW IT OUT!
Source: Food Safety Inspection Service
Debbie Wilburn is county extension agent in family and consumer science with the Hall County Extension. Contact: 770-535-8290.