Group of Friends Having a Barbecue

Picnics and food safety: putting age-old arguments to rest

When folks gather around the grill to spend some welcome relaxation time with family and friends, food becomes the centerpiece of a shared experience. How do you make sure you’re keeping those you care for safe at the table? Cari Lingle, 3M Food Safety microbiologist, puts eight commonly-debated food arguments to the test. Does the “five-second rule” exist? How pink is too pink? And how long will it take for food to spoil in the sun? Find out below.

Cari Lingle is a microbiologist on the 3M Food Safety team.
  1. The “five-second rule” 

    This common claim stems all the way back to your elementary school days. So does it actually hold up, scientifically speaking? Sorry, nope. ““The five-second rule definitely is not a thing,” says Cari. “Once the food comes into contact with the floor – or any other surface – the bacteria can immediately be transferred onto the surface of the food.”
     
  2. How long can mayo-based foods sit out in the family picnic? 

    All foods sitting at temperatures above 40 degrees Fahrenheit (meaning outside of your refrigerator) should not be left out for more than two hours. And that time starts to decrease on hot, summer days. If it’s 90 degrees Fahrenheit at your picnic, says Cari, food should not be out more than one hour. “The warmer it is, the more ideal the conditions are for bacteria to grow, and the faster they’ll start to grow, creating levels of bacteria that can become so high the food can become unsafe to eat.
     
  3. Are burgers with pink in the middle a bad idea? 

    “Yes, it’s a very bad idea,” says Cari. Here’s why: Mechanical mincing and grinding of beef will take bacteria that are on the outside of the slab of meat and turn it into a uniform mixture of bacteria in the ground beef. If any harmful bacteria exist on the outside, they get mixed in with the rest, so the harmful bacteria end up in the middle of your burger. If you don’t cook the middle of the burger to the proper temperature – 160 degrees Fahrenheit for beef – that bacteria would still survive and could cause illness.
     
  4. Can pork be pink and still be safe to eat? 

    It depends. Historically, people have been afraid of eating pork that was pink in the middle – or not fully cooked – because of a parasite known as Trichinella. “But the pork industry has done a lot of work in the last 50 years to reduce the presence of this parasite in these animals, and for that reason, they’ve changed the guidelines to be cooked to a temp of 145 degrees,” she says. Once the pork reaches that temperature, the Trichinella worm and any harmful bacteria will be killed, and it’s considered safe to eat – even if the meat is still pink in color. When it comes to ground pork or bratwurst, however, cook it completely – for the same reasons as ground beef.
     
  5. How do I safely handle raw chicken? 

    Raw chicken is often contaminated with Campylobacter bacteria and sometimes with Salmonella bacteria, so it’s important we take special precautions when prepping poultry. Cari offers these five tips:

    – While grocery shopping, put the raw poultry in a small plastic bag. Keep that bag in a separate place in your cart, away from foods you’ll be eating raw. That will help ensure the juice from the meat doesn’t cross-contaminate other items in your cart.

    – When you get the food home, store the meats on the bottom shelf. That way, if there are any leaks, the juices won’t drip down on other food and contaminate it.

    – Never rinse your chicken in your sink prior to cooking – this will only contaminate your sink with bacteria. Bacteria present on the raw meat will be destroyed during the cooking process.

    – Use separate tools, including knives and cutting boards, when handling raw poultry. And make sure you’re not reusing them on anything that’s cooked.

    – Wash your hands with soap right after you handle raw chicken, so you’re not cross-contaminating other food, tools or pots and pans.
     
  6. Is organic and locally-grown food from the farmer’s market safer than what’s offered at the grocery store? 

    It turns out that the organic or locally grown products we buy are not necessarily safer than anything we can purchase at the grocery store. All food products – conventional or organic – must meet the same safety criteria, and they’re all held to the same standard. Cari is a regular farmer’s market shopper, and she offers this advice: “You can always ask the farmer, ‘Has this produce been washed? What do you use to wash it? How has this been stored? When did you harvest it?’ Ask the seller questions about how they ensure the food is safe. When you’re satisfied with the answer, continue going back to the seller you trust.”
     
  7. How often should I clean my refrigerator’s produce bin? 

    We tend to dump our produce in the vegetable bin of our refrigerators and then forget about it. When we find it weeks later, it has turned slimy and mushy and maybe even grown a little mold. This can be a food-safety hazard, “because even at refrigeration temperatures, bacteria are still capable of growing if they have nutrients, and that bacteria can cross-contaminate other foods in the bin,” Cari says. Even those little bits of lettuce or carrots left in the bottom of the bin help the bacteria survive. Her suggestion? Set a regular produce bin-cleaning schedule. “My rule of thumb is this: Clean out the bin as often as you buy groceries. If that seems to frequent or impractical, set up a schedule that works best for you. Regular cleaning will help to prevent any contamination from the previously stored items getting on to the new vegetables.”
     
  8. Should I wash the outside of watermelon, cantaloupe and avocados before cutting into them? 

    We should always try to do the best we can to minimize bacteria on the surface before we cut into it, says Cari. “Rinsing with water or some light scrubbing with a clean brush will do the trick,” Cari says. “There’s no need to use soap or detergent to wash fruits or vegetables. Light mechanical action – or scrubbing – is all you need to do to dramatically decrease the odds of the inside of the fruit being contaminated once it’s cut.”