Insights & Actions for Healthy Living
Detective Foodsafe: Case of the Nearly-Deadly Picnic Basket

Detective Foodsafe: Case of the Nearly-Deadly Picnic Basket

Spring flowers are blooming and many people are taking their families to the park, beach or lake to enjoy a special day.

Detective Foodsafe® has mixed feelings about the start of the spring because it can be a pretty busy time for her too, but not necessarily an enjoyable one.

And this spring is no different, unfortunately, as the first call requesting her help comes in early.

Foodsafe Hotline Calling

Detective Foodsafe received a call bright and early this Monday morning with a report from the hotline from someone claiming to have symptoms of food poisoning.

In fact, a family of 15 are all experiencing the same illness.

The call was from Gertrude Barney (not her real name). She left a message asking for help after her family spent the weekend enjoying each other’s company while the kids were on school break.

They all apparently are experiencing nausea, diarrhea, cramps and fever.

Mrs. Barney, her two children, their spouses, and her grandchildren, ages 3 to 12, all picnicked at the local park yesterday and now they are all ill.

Detective Foodsafe’s curiosity is piqued and she heads over to the home of Mrs. Barney to learn more.

The Contents of the Picnic Basket in Question

When Detective Foodsafe arrived at the location, she questioned Mrs. Barney about the events leading up to everyone becoming ill.

simple picnic basketMrs. Barney described their day. “We all decided to go to the park for a picnic, since it was such a pretty day, and we were all together. We packed up a lunch and some toys to entertain the kids and off we went.”

Detective Foodsafe responded with an inquiry, “can you tell me about the foods you brought along with you?”

Mrs. Barney stated, “we brought some soda and juice boxes to drink, I put in the leftover potato salad from dinner the night before along with hot dogs and buns. I brought the condiments for the hot dogs that the kids like including a bottle of ketchup, some mustard and my homemade chow chow from last summer. We stopped at the grocery store and bought a watermelon and cantaloupe too for something refreshing.”

When the Cooler Isn’t Cool Enough

Detective Foodsafe questioned her further. “Tell me how you carried all this food from your house to the park. Did you bring a grill to cook the hot dogs too?”

Mrs. Barney answered, “no we cooked on the grill at the park. We used our old ice chest with the ice I had in my freezer. It wasn’t much ice but it was all I had. I thought it would keep things cold until lunchtime.”

Detective Foodsafe asked if she had any of the picnic food leftover. Since the family did bring home some of their picnic food, Detective Foodsafe took it all back to the lab for analysis.

Picnic Food Safety

Detective Foodsafe has an idea already about why this family may have gotten sick on their picnic.

While she waits for the lab results to come in, Detective Foodsafe wants to remind us about picnic food safety tips we can all use:

  1. Keep perishable food cold during transport and throughout the day. It should be kept below 40 degrees F. Use ice packs, frozen gel packs and bags of ice to keep foods at the proper temperature. You can pack meats like hot dogs in their frozen state to help them stay cold until cooked.
  2. Keep the cooler closed as much as possible. Consider packing a separate drink cooler, since it will be opened frequently throughout the picnic.
  3. Cook all meats thoroughly, using a meat thermometer to ensure it is cooked until any bacteria is destroyed. Cook all foods to proper internal temperatures for the proper length of time, especially leftovers.
  4. family picnic parkBring a way to wash hands, picnic tables and grills, such as water in a jug and soap/paper towels, moistened towelettes or hand sanitizer. Be sure everyone’s hands are clean before cooking and eating.
  5. Keep the food juices from uncooked food away from already prepared foods such as salads or fruits.
  6. Wash all produce, even foods that you will not eat the peel such as melons, before you cut up.
  7. Inspect canned and prepared foods to be sure they aren’t spoiled, especially home canned items. Ensure they are free from the presence of bacteria. Check screw tops, lids and eliminate dented cans.
  8. Bring along plenty of utensils and serving plates to prevent cross contamination between cooked and uncooked foods.

The Case of the Potentially-Deadly Picnic Basket

Mrs. Barney’s picnic basket was full of things that were culprits in making this family ill.

Bringing along leftovers on a picnic is not a good idea because you can’t be sure they will be properly reheated to kill any microorganisms that have grown in the food. The leftovers could have been unrefrigerated longer than two hours the day before and would be susceptible to foodborne illness.

Home canned chow chow from the summer before was run through the lab and showed signs of mold growth under the lid. Mrs. Barney said she never knew her home canning should be refrigerated after it was opened.

The family did not wash the watermelon or cantaloupe they bought at the supermarket because they said they weren’t going to eat the rind. They did not realize harmful bacteria could enter the fruit when the knife cuts through the rind contaminating the inside.

The Barneys also failed to keep the food in the cooler cold enough as their ice was limited and did not bring the temperature down to 40 degrees F very long, if at all.

Better Safe Than Sick

Any one of these food safety failures could have resulted in making more susceptible members of the family ill such as children and older adults, but the combination of many of these issues increased the odds of getting food poisoning for every member of the family.

Detective Foodsafe wants everyone to enjoy a happy — and, especially, safe — spring and warns us all that even a picnic basket needs attention to be sure if is safe to prevent foodborne illness.

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