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Summer days just seem to cry out, “time for a picnic.” This is ideal weather to cook and eat outside, but it is also the ideal temperature for bacteria to multiply and cause a foodborne illness.
Of course, we all know food needs to be kept cold. The general rule-of-thumb is food should not be left at room temperature for more than two hours, and this goes down to one hour when it’s one of those really hot over-90-degrees summer days.
I’d like to set the record straight about a common food safety belief. It’s about foods like macaroni salad, potato salad and deviled eggs. You know, those foods with mayonnaise or salad dressings that people seem to worry a lot about. Yes, these foods can be potentially risky, and care should be taken to make sure they say out of the heat and under 40 degrees as long as possible, but don’t blame the mayonnaise.
This is one of those old wives’ tales that everyone seems to believe. I think it is a holdover from when people used to make their own mayonnaise. OK, so when was the last time you made your own mayonnaise?
Real homemade mayonnaise takes raw egg, lemon juice, oil and mustard. The egg is blended and then the oil is slowly dripped in as it is beaten. This makes a thick emulsion that is similar to what we now buy commercially in jars.
Yes, that’s a raw egg and no, it is not ever cooked. This is where food safety comes in. Actually, it has two possible problems: eating raw or undercooked eggs is considered risky due to the possibility of salmonella. This problem is multiplied when it is left at room temperature for a long time; thus, the concern about mayo at room temperature or at picnics.
Commercially made mayonnaise and salad dressings do not have these problems. Some do have eggs, but they are cooked during the processing. All commercial dressings also have a high acid content—this is usually vinegar. Acids tend to inhibit growth of pathogens that cause a foodborne illness or food poisoning. So, unless you’re putting homemade mayo on your potato salad, don’t blame the mayo!
But then, you still can’t leave these items set out on a hot picnic table. Usually the foods we mix with mayo and salad dressings are highly susceptible to bacterial growth.
Think about it. What’s in potato salad? Usually cooked potatoes and hard-cooked eggs. Both of these items are what they call “potentially hazardous.”
So don’t think that just because it’s not the mayo that you don’t have to worry about salads, eggs and sandwiches. Keep that food as cold as possible and bring to the table directly from the ice chest just before serving.
Picnic food should be transported with adequate refrigeration. Because cold air moves downward, put the ice on top of the food. Do not skimp on the amount of ice needed to keep food below 40 degrees. If possible, keep the cooler in the air-conditioned part of the car.
Another rule-of-thumb is to throw away any food that you had at a picnic that you are not absolutely sure has been kept cold. The safest way to deal with picnic leftovers is to plan well and not have any. Don’t allow food items or leftovers to sit at room temperature on the picnic table for “grazing” or “piecing.”
Dispose of food waste carefully. Leaving food where stray or wild animals may find it is not a good idea as foodborne illness may strike them as well.
Make sure your summer cookouts and picnics are talked about because of the fun and the food, not because someone got sick.
Source: Ohio State University Extension, Outdoor Food Events.
Cheryle Syracuse is a Family and Consumer Science staff member and can be reached at NC Cooperative Extension, Brunswick County Center, at 253-2610.