"Safe Food to Go," the U.S. Department of Agriculture's recently issued guide to out-of-home food handling, reminds us that salmonella (a bacteria present in some raw or undercooked food, or food that has come into contact with infected raw food) and Staphylococcus aureus (a bacteria sometimes spread by the handling of food) are no strangers any time of the year.
Picnickers, outdoor cooking buffs and anyone who carries their lunch or transports a meal can benefit from these tips:
Because staph is normally found on everyone, it's especially important to not only wash your hands before handling food, but to wash everything that comes into contact with the food (such as counter tops, bowls and utensils) between work on each dish. Once transmitted to food and given enough time to produce its toxin, staph will not be destroyed by cooking.
Always keep raw food away from cooked food (for instance, don't prepare the salad on the same cutting board as the meat without washing the board thoroughly). Rather than use your hands for mixing, use a fork.
Never leave food out longer than two hours.
Poultry, eggs, beef and pork--the prime carriers of salmonella--should be cooked thoroughly.
Refrigerate packed food the night before, adding foods that might go limp (chips and cookies, for example) the next morning.
If it's not possible to refrigerate your lunch again at the office or school, put something cold inside the container. Insulated coolants work best, but chilled beverages are good substitutes. Sandwiches of coarse-textured bread can be frozen overnight, packed to keep the lunch cool and should thaw by lunch. Add toppings--lettuce, tomatoes and spreads--just before leaving the house. (Cold foods should be kept at less than 40 degrees.)
Wash lunch containers with soap and hot water daily, and once a week with baking soda to remove odors. Brown-baggers should replace bags daily; never use a soiled or wet bag.
If using a thermos, check the seal to make sure it fits tightly, and rinse the cleaned vessel with boiling water before filling it. (Hot food should be kept at more than 140 degrees.)
Discard leftovers. Above all, follow the rule "When in doubt, throw it out."