Cooking in the great outdoors is a lot different than it used to be. For a start, it’s much easier and less time-consuming with the development of dehydrated meals and freeze-dried meals, as sold by this leading New Zealand outdoor gear retailer. Meals like these represent the ultimate in convenience while retaining much of the nutritional value, but for all that – is dining in the outdoors any healthier than it used to be?
Food Standards NZ has recently published updated information on what they consider to be the five main considerations for food safety while camping. They are:
- temperature control of food
- water supply
- handwashing facilities
- protecting food from contamination
- disposal of rubbish and wastewater to prevent food contamination
Food Standards NZ maintains that the use of “potentially hazardous foods” should be kept to a minimum unless it can be kept at 5°C or colder. Potentially hazardous foods e.g. dairy products, eggs, meat, can promote rapid bacterial growth and that, of course, can cause illness. Feeling sick and incapacitated while in the middle of nowhere is a recipe for disaster so if a camp is catering for a large group, it might be a good idea to hire gas-powered refrigeration equipment or use similar facilities close to the campsite, if they’re available. If you only have limited cooling equipment, buy potentially hazardous foods fresh every day and carefully dispose of any leftover food. Consider purchasing foods that are shelf-stable, like long-life milk that has been treated in the carton, canned meats, fish and dairy products and, as we discussed earlier, freeze-dried foods and dehydrated foods.
A safe water supply is probably the most important requirement when camping. Water is essential for preparing and cooking food, cleaning utensils, and personal hygiene. You need to be able to access water that is of drinking quality. If the water source is not suitable for drinking, it will need to be treated by boiling it, although it must be protected from contamination during cooling and storage. If it’s not practical to boil all the water you need for food preparation and personal hygiene, you can use chemicals to sterilise the water but you must always follow the manufacturers’ instructions. Always protect sources for drinking water, like streams, wells and bores. Access to the main water collection point should be restricted and protected from animals and foreign matter. Keep clean containers aside specifically for drinking water and be sure to store them carefully at all times, with lids fastened.
Effective handwashing is another consideration. Clean and warm running water is ideal so that soap can function properly and your hands can be rinsed before you dry them. Of course, while camping, this running water might be a luxury and not readily available. You may need to contact the local council or health authority for approval to use alternative handwashing methods at some sites. This might include sterile wipes or cleaning gels but always check their potential environmental impact. If you have access to drinking-quality water, you can easily set up a handwashing facility that provides running water by using a large water container with a tap at its base. Another container e.g. a bucket, should collect wastewater, to keep the site dry and clean. Soap and paper towels must be provided, but ensure you have a bin for used towels so you can keep the site tidy and reduce the risk of contamination from used towels.
It is imperative to protect food from contamination. Bacteria cannot move from A to B by themselves – but poor food-handling practices can help them transfer from a non-food source to food, and from one food to another. Contamination is more likely when camping because you may only have access to basic equipment and amenities. To protect food from contamination always wash your hands before cooking a meal, keep food covered, and use separate utensils like knives and chopping boards for different foods. Keep raw meat, fruits and vegetables well away from other foods that are ready to eat, like cooked meat and salads; Wash and dry your hands properly after handling raw meat and be just as careful when washing and drying eating and drinking utensils.
The disposal of rubbish and wastewater must be done carefully as they attract pests and contaminate food if not properly stored and disposed of. Bag and tie rubbish and keep it well away from food preparation areas. If there’s a designated wastewater disposal area at your camping site, always use it. Never dispose of wastewater in or near water sources.
Eating well in the great outdoors is one thing – staying well is another. Being sick while you’re miles from home isn’t fun – in fact, it could become a full-blown disaster. That’s why we recommend you remember these five considerations from Food Standards NZ.