V-A-C-A-T-I-O-N! A time we all look forward to. No matter where we go or what we do, in cars or recreational vehicles, on boats or relaxing at the beach or at camp, there is a common denominator that runs through all of our summer travels and relaxation -- it's called F-O-O-D!
The "road" to food safety, however, can either be a bumpy one or smooth -- depending on what precautions are taken handling meals as we travel this summer. So, some general rules:
If you are traveling with perishable food, place cold food in a cooler with ice or freezer packs. Pack a separate cooler for the beverages and the food. That way, the cooler with the food is not opened so often. Have plenty of ice or frozen gel-packs on hand before starting to pack food. If you take perishable foods along (for example, meat, poultry, eggs, and salads) for eating on the road or to cook at your vacation spot, plan to keep everything at 40 degrees or below to prevent bacterial growth.
Pack perishable foods directly from the refrigerator or freezer into the cooler. Meat and poultry may be packed while still frozen; that way it stays colder longer. Keep raw meat, poultry and seafood well wrapped to keep juices from contaminating other foods in the cooler.
If taking fruit and melons whole, be sure that you can wash them well under running cool water and scrub well before you leave. Once you cut the melons, they are perishable and need to be kept cold for safety, so plan some space for the cut melons if you have leftovers or are transporting the melons cut.
A full cooler will maintain its cold temperatures longer than one that is partially filled. If the cooler is only partially filled, pack the remaining space with more ice or with fruit and some nonperishable foods such as peanut butter and jelly and perhaps some hard, cheddarlike cheeses. For long trips, take along two coolers -- one for the day's immediate food needs, such as lunch, drinks or snacks, and the other for perishable foods to be used later in the vacation.
Keep the cooler in the air-conditioned passenger compartment of your car, rather than in a hot trunk. Limit the times the cooler is opened. Open and close the lid quickly.
Now, follow these food safety tips:
• Hand washing: Remember, clean hands are the No. 1 way to stay healthy. So before preparing food and before ever picking up that burger, be sure to wash your hands with soap and water. If none is available, then use hand sanitizer, making sure you rub it in until it is dry!
• When camping: Keep the cooler in a shady spot, covered with a blanket, tarp or poncho, preferably one that is light in color to reflect heat. Keep adding more ice as needed; the cooler itself will not keep food cold. If you won't have good access to ice, then consider meals using shelf-stable food to ensure food safety.
Bring along bottled water or other canned or bottled drinks. Always assume that streams and rivers are not safe for drinking. If camping in a remote area, bring along water purification tablets or equipment. These are available at camping supply stores.
Keep hands and all utensils clean when preparing food. Wash your hands using soap and water whenever possible. Use disposable towelettes to
clean hands until soap and water is available. Hand sanitizers are meant to clean germs off the hands once they are clean.
• When boating: Don't let perishable food sit out while swimming or fishing. Remember, food sitting out for more than two hours is not safe. The time frame is reduced to just one hour if the outside temperature is above 90.
Now, about that "catch" of fish — assuming the big one did not get away. For fin fish: scale, gut and clean the fish as soon as they are caught. Wrap both whole and cleaned fish in water-tight plastic and store on ice. Keep 3-4 inches of ice on the bottom of the cooler. Alternate layers of fish and ice. Cook the fish in one two days, or freeze and use it within six months. After cooking, eat within three to four days. Make sure the raw fish stays in its own cooler and separate from cooked foods.
Crabs, lobsters and other shellfish must be kept alive until cooked. Store in a bushel or laundry basket under wet burlap. Crabs and lobsters are best eaten the day they are caught. Live oysters can keep seven to 10 days; mussels and clams, four to five days.
• When at the beach: Plan ahead. Take along only the amount of food that can be eaten to avoid having leftovers.
Bring the cooler! Partially bury it in the sand, cover with blankets, and shade with a beach umbrella.
Again, try to have water and soap for hand washing or bring along moist towelettes for cleaning hands.
If dining along the boardwalk, make sure the food stands frequented look clean, and that hot foods are served hot and cold foods cold. Don't eat anything that has been sitting out in the hot sun -- a real invitation for food-borne illness and a spoiled vacation.
• When in the vacation home or the RV: If a vacation home or a recreational vehicle has not been used for a while, check leftover canned food from last year. WSU Extension recommends that canned foods which may have been exposed to freezing and thawing temperatures over the winter be discarded.
Also, check the refrigerator. If unplugged from last year, thoroughly clean it before using. Make sure all food preparation areas in the vacation home or in the recreational vehicle are thoroughly cleaned.
So, if you plan a vacation at the beach, or a road trip or just a mini vacation to the local park, remember to keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold, don't cross-contaminate, and wash your hands.
Sandra Brown is the food safety and nutrition expert for the Washington State University Cooperative Extension in Clark, Cowlitz and Wahkiakum counties. Reach her at 360-397-6060, ext. 5700 or firstname.lastname@example.org.