Ice Cooler is Your Best Friend on the Road


You’re going on a road trip. Did you know your best friend for food safety is that cooler of yours, the one quietly sitting on a shelf in the garage? The same cooler taken out during cookouts or picnics also keeps your perishable foods safe while on the road.

Before you head out the door, bring that cooler to the kitchen and clean it with warm water and soap. When packing the food, make sure to fill it with PLENTY of ice or frozen gel-packs.

“You should have a separate cooler for drinks for two reasons. The cooler containing the drinks is opened often, letting in warm air. The cooler containing perishable food should not be opened often because the food needs to be stored as cold as possible to reduce the risk of bacterial growth,” Food Safety and Inspection Service spokesperson Maria Malagon suggested. “It is important to pack perishable foods directly from the refrigerator or freezer into the cooler.”

If the food is still frozen when you pack it, it will stay cold longer. Placing an appliance thermometer in the cooler will help you be sure the food stays at a safe temperature–40 °F or below. Also, try to keep the cooler full.  A full cooler will maintain a cold temperature longer than one that is partially filled. Don’t forget to keep raw meat and poultry wrapped separately from cooked foods or snacks meant to be eaten raw.

“If you are going on a long trip or are picnicking along the way, we recommend taking two coolers with you  — 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,” Malagon advised. “Limit the times the cooler is opened. Open and close the lid quickly.”

Spending the day at the beach?  Take along only the amount of food that can be eaten to avoid having leftovers. Partially bury your cooler in the sand, cover it with blankets, and shade it with a beach umbrella. On a hot day, especially when outside temperatures rise above 90 °F, the ice in coolers melts faster so coolers can be less effective at keeping food safe.

If you go on a boating trip, make sure not to let perishable food sit out while swimming or fishing. Remember, food sitting out for more than 2 hours, or 1 hour if the outside temperature is above 90 °F, must be thrown out.

For the lucky ones who caught fish, gut the fish and make sure to wrap both whole and filleted fish in water-tight plastic. Store them in a cooler. We recommend placing 3 to 4 inches of ice on the bottom of the cooler first, then alternate layers of fish and ice. Cook the fish in 1 or 2 days, or freeze it. After cooking, eat within 3 to 4 days. Make sure the raw fish stays separate from cooked foods.

Crabs, lobsters and other shellfish must be kept alive until cooked. Store them in a bushel or laundry basket under wet burlap. Crabs and lobsters are best eaten the day they are caught. Live oysters can keep 7 to10 days; mussels and clams, 4-5 days.

A note of caution: Be aware of the potential dangers of eating raw shellfish. Eating raw shellfish is not recommended for anyone but this is especially true for persons with liver disorders or weakened immune systems.

Camping overnight? Remember to keep your cooler in a shady spot. Keep it covered with a blanket, tarp or poncho. If the ice melts or the gel packs thaw, and perishable food becomes warmer than 40 °F, discard it.

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. Use disposable moist towels to clean hands. When you plan meals, think about buying and using shelf-stable food to ensure food safety.

Follow these tips and have a great time!

For more information, please click here.  You can also Ask Karen 24 hours a day at or call the USDA Meat & Poultry Hotline at 1-888-MPHotline (1-888- 674-6854).


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