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Make It a Food Safe Reunion

Family reunions and picnics are great for the heart and soul but sometimes not for the body. Many foodborne illness outbreaks have been traced to food served at large family gatherings, for a number of different reasons:

Fruit and salads on picnic table

  • Lots of cooks in the kitchen: From eccentric aunts to teenage trainees, cooks of varying food-handling skills have prepared the foods for the buffet or gathering. As a result, food may not have been cooked to a hot enough temperature to destroy bacteria, or it may have been left out in the temperature “Danger Zone” (40 to 140 ºF) where bacteria thrive.
  • Warm summer days: Making the problem worse is that reunions and big family gatherings are often held in the summer. Bacteria grow and multiply faster in warm, summer months, including the harmful bacteria that can make you sick.
  • The Great Outdoors: Another reason for the upswing in foodborne illnesses is reunions and gatherings are held outside when the weather is nice. The safety controls that a kitchen provides  (such as thermostat-controlled cooking, refrigeration, and washing facilities) are usually not available.

Given these challenges, what’s the best way to ensure a food safe reunion? My advice is to get back to the basics: Clean, Separate, Cook and Chill.

Clean: Always wash your hands before and after handling food. If you’re outdoors and the site doesn’t have running water, bring water for preparation and cleaning; or pack clean, wet, disposable cloths or moist towelettes and paper towels for cleaning hands and surfaces.

Separate: Be smart and keep foods apart. Cross-contamination during preparation, grilling, and serving food is a prime cause of foodborne illness. Plan ahead and bring extra platters and utensils. Don’t let your favorite uncle take the raw burgers off a plate, grill them, and put them back on the same (unwashed) plate.

Cook: If you are cooking or bringing hot takeout foods, keep hot foods hot (140 ºF or above). Eat hot takeout food within 2 hours of pickup (that includes fried chicken!). Use a grill, campfire or portable stove to heat foods, and bring a food thermometer to make sure the food reaches safe temperatures. Check our Minimum Cooking Temperatures chart for details.

Chill: When you are enjoying food in the great outdoors, always keep cold foods cold (40 ºF or below). If you are traveling with cold foods, bring a cooler with a cold source.

Questions and Answers

Updated August 2, 2010

Q. If you get sick after eating food at a family reunion on a hot day, what is the sickness called besides "food poisoning"? 

A. There are a number of different illnesses that result from eating contaminated food. Our Food Poisoning page provides links to details on the most common causes, including potential food sources.

Keep in mind that it's hard to know exactly which food caused the illness. As we discussed in our Complex Mystery blog, “When people get sick from food, they often assume the cause was the last thing they ate before they started feeling sick. That’s often not the case…. The cause could have been something they ate several days ago, something they might not even remember eating.”

Posted in: Food Outside the HomeTagged: Picnic | Reunion | Outdoors | Grill