SIOUX CITY -- Ants might not be the biggest problem you'll face when planning a summertime picnic.
Instead, it may be sickness coming from food-borne illnesses.
"People think that they'll be able to taste, see and smell mishandled food," Renee Sweers, Woodbury County Iowa State University Extension and Outreach nutrition and wellness specialist, said. "This isn't always going to be the case."
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 1 in 6 Americans -- or about 48 million people -- suffer from food-borne illnesses each year. The result: approximately 128,000 hospitalizations and 3,000 deaths.
Since food-borne bacteria thrives in warmer weather, food-borne illnesses increase in the summer months.
"People love spending time outdoors and planning picnics in the summer," Sweers said. "With a little planning, you can keep yourself and your guests safe this picnic season."
BE PREPARED, INSIDE OR OUTSIDE
At home, everyone has easy access to a sink and clean water. That's not always the case when you're in a park.
"Cleanliness is a big factor when it comes to preventing food-borne illnesses," Sweers said. "Whether you're at home or outdoors at a picnic, you should always wash your hands with soap and warm water before and after handling food."
Be sure to check if there's a source of clean water at a picnic site. If there isn't, prepare to bring plenty of water from home, for both cleaning and preparation purposes. Otherwise, clean cloths and wet towelettes might do the trick.
STEER CLEAR OF THE 'DANGER ZONE'
The "danger zone," Sweer said, is the range between 40 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit, where food-borne bacteria can grown rapidly to dangerous levels.
"Without refrigeration or a heat source, food should never be left out for more than two hours if the outdoor temp is 90 or below," she explained. "If the temp is 90 or above, food should be returned to the cooler within the hour."
If food goes beyond that point, just dump it.
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"Leaving food out for too long is one of the most common mistakes people make in the summer," Sweers said.
KEEPING COOL WITH MULTIPLE COOLERS
Sweers suggested you separate your food into different coolers.
That way, you can ensure your cold food will stay cold -- below 40 degrees -- in containers with sources like ice or frozen gel packs. Such foods can include potato salads, egg salads and, even, certain types of sliced vegetables or fruits.
Still concerned? Packing a portable thermometer in your cooler will go a long way toward giving you peace of mind.
Make sure that all raw meat and poultry is securely wrapped, Sweers said. This keeps their juices from contaminating prepared or cooked foods as well as foods that can be eaten raw, like fruits and veggies.
All foods should be cooked thoroughly. Chicken must be cooked to a temperature of 165 F, while burgers are OK at 160 degrees. On the other hand, steaks and chops can be cooked to a temp of 145 degrees.
PREVENT PLATTER PROBLEMS
Plates and utensils that previously held raw meat or poultry should be reused for serving.
"Unless the plate's been washed in hot, soapy water, I'd recommend just getting another plate," Sweers said.
DON'T SWEAT IT
"If you're using a cooler, try to keep it out of direct sunlight as much as possible," Sweers said. "Placing it in the shade or inside a shelter is even better."
Summer picnics can be a relatively "chill" time for families and friends.
"With a little common sense and some extra prep work," Sweers said, "your picnics should be problem-free."
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