How to avoid food poisoning when cooking and eating outdoors

Published: July 30, 2018

Outdoor burger [Photo: Shutterstock]

Eating in the great outdoors is one of life’s simple pleasures. There’s just something about chowing down on a burger or potato salad while the sun shines down that makes you feel at peace with the world.

But eating outdoors can carry its own risks. No, we’re not talking about spraining your ankle as you hike to your picnic spot. We’re talking about food poisoning.

Anyone who’s had food poisoning knows what a uniquely unpleasant experience it is. Fever, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea — it’s basically everything you don’t want to experience during your summer at the cottage.

“There are many causes of foodborne illness, including bacteria, viruses, protozoa and toxins,” says Mansel Griffiths, a food safety specialist and Professor Emeritus at the University of Guelph, “and the consequences can vary from mild illness to death.”

Fortunately, food poisoning is largely preventable. If you can keep food clean, cool, and out of contact with sources of harmful bacteria, your odds of getting food poisoning can be greatly reduced. Here are a few tips to help you stay healthy so you can enjoy the summer.

Know the risks

Whether you’re indoors or outdoors, the causes of food poisoning are the same: harmful bacteria, viruses, and other microscopic agents of illness. Food can cause food poisoning if it comes into contact with this bacteria, is cooked improperly, or is left out in the heat, allowing bacteria to multiply. Whether you’re eating indoors or outdoors, says Griffiths, “the food safety risks are essentially the same.” However, the risk of food poisoning can increase outdoors because it’s difficult to keep food clean and cool. Being aware of what food poisoning is and what causes it will allow you to take steps toward avoiding it.

Wash your hands, and carry alcohol-based hand sanitizer

Food isn’t the only thing carrying bacteria — you are too. Your hands, whether you like it or not, come into contact with all sorts of gross things over the course of a day, so it’s important to wash them thoroughly before touching food. Hand sanitizer is no replacement for clean water and soap, but if you’re out in the woods, it might be your best bet for sterilizing your hands. Bodies of water such as lakes and streams can contain E. Coli, beaver fever (AKA Giardia), and other bacteria, so using them for hand-washing — or food — may involve its own risks.

Clean, separate, cook, and chill

When cooking outdoors, these four words should be your mantra, says Griffiths. First, keep things clean: your hands, your food, and your cooking equipment. “There have been some issues with metal brush bristles from brushes used to clean barbecues contaminating food,” Mansel notes. Next, make sure raw foods are separated from one another. Raw meat juices can be particularly troublesome, so you should store meat below other foods to avoid them becoming exposed to drippings. Also ensure you clean cooking utensils if you’re transferring them between different types of food to avoid cross-contamination. Cooking, unlike cooling, actually kills bacteria, so it’s vital to do it correctly — and having steak tartare out in the bush is a no-no. Keeping a cooking thermometer by your grill or in your camping pack can save you a lot of suffering. Foods should be kept at 60°C or above, and liquids can be boiled to kill off any lingering bacteria. Finally, chill. This step is tough when there isn’t a fridge in sight, but a good cooler full of ice can do the job just as well. Again, thermometers are your friend. Below 4°C, bacteria growth is significantly slowed, and at –18°C, it stops completely. Still, chilling can’t kill bacteria, so proper cooking is still a must.

Clean separate cook and chill graphic
[Photo: Shutterstock]
Prep in advance, and indoors

As much as possible, do your food prep in clean indoor environments. The outdoors is full of potential pathogen carriers and germs, so avoiding contact as much as possible is key.

Scrub fruits and veggies

Fruit on picnic table
[Photo: Shutterstock]
“As far as barbecues are concerned, arguably the greatest risk is posed by undercooked meat,” says Griffiths, “but the majority of foodborne illnesses are caused by fresh fruit and vegetables.” When you’re outdoors, you may find yourself particularly focused on preparing meat properly, but there are plenty of fruits and vegetables that can also cause food poisoning — and many of them are standard picnic items. Melons, leafy greens, tomatoes, peppers, and nuts are just a few culprits who have been linked to outbreaks. Watch out for public safety warnings, and scrub your produce thoroughly before eating. And always put it into a clean container, not back into the one it came from.

Keep the bugs at bay

The whims of insects are largely beyond human control, but with repellant and netting, you can try to keep them at bay. “Flies […] have been shown to carry foodborne pathogens,” says Griffiths. So keep a swatter handy, and don’t leave food out in the open for long periods of time, which flies will take as an open invitation.

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