The Fourth of July marks the birth of the United States as an independent nation. While it’s been celebrated for centuries, it did not become an official national holiday until 1941. Though America itself is a melting pot of varying cultures and cuisines, the standard observance generally involves outdoor celebrations and BBQ. Crowds often gather at parks, beaches, and even baseball fields to soak up the sun and await the evening’s fireworks display. Picnic baskets, ice chests, and other modes of eatery are toted along—and with it all comes the very high probability of mold growth in food storage.
What Causes Mold on Food?
The release and circulation of mold spores throughout the environment is what causes mold on food. In fact, mold spores are considered unavoidable contaminants of food, especially in grain-based foods. Most food storage and food preservative measures (such as refrigeration) are merely meant to stave off the inevitable growth of mold and bacteria for as long as possible.
Moisture and temperature are what truly fuel the growth of mold. This is why refrigeration and other methods such as storing produce and other food items with napkins or paper towels to absorb moisture helps to limit mold’s ability to thrive and produce mycotoxins or worse—aflatoxins.
Types of Mold on Food
The types of mold on food generally depend on the type of food. For instance, bread molds tend to harbor Aspergillus, Monascus, Rhizopus, Penicillium, and Fusarium. Cheese molds—most dairy molds, for that matter—tend to harbor Penicillium and Mucor Genera.
Not all molds are considered toxic, even if they hail from the same genus that is known to produce toxic species. Regardless of their toxicity, however, they can still cause irritation to the respiratory system and gastrointestinal tract—even more-so if they actually contain aflatoxins.
Symptoms of Mold Exposure from Ingestion
Once ingested, mold spores have the potential to become quite harmful, depending on the sensitivity of the infected individual’s immune system, the overall health of the individual, and the type of mold they’ve ingested.
Ingested mold can wreak havoc on the digestive system, causing nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and irritable bowel syndrome, which is why it’s important to be sure you adhere to adequate prevention and post-event methods when storing food for outdoor gatherings and conducting clean-up and re-storage once you return home. The problem will not arise the day of the celebrations, but several days later when you’re thinking it’s safe to eat leftovers.
How to Prevent Mold Growth in Food Storage
As stated earlier, mold growth relies on several factors. It isn’t just the presence of a food source that permits the growth of mold, but the existence of moisture, oxygen, and comfortable temperatures.
The question is not: “Will mold get on my food?” The question you should be asking yourself is: “Will the mold spores already in or on my food be given the chance take root and proliferate?” The answer is “yes” if food is haphazardly stored with open containers or it is allowed to sit in a warm environment. This significantly increases the chances of mold growth.
Another issue many tend to overlook is the type of storage. The porosity of a material can facilitate hiding spaces for mold to grow in, even if they appear clean. Plastics, rubber, paper products, and more tend to be the greater facilitators. Metal, glass, and air-tight plastic bags or wraps offer the least assistance to mold growth in food.
Sometimes, the container of food is not the issue, but the larger containers used to carry the food containers, such as ice chests, picnic baskets, or lunch pales/boxes. While some don’t want to admit it, a picnic or BBQ on the Fourth of July sometimes ends in careless and disorganized clean-up and placement back into the tote container. For whatever reason, this can happen regardless of your best efforts—and sometimes the food simply gets jostled open when carried back to the car or on the drive home, too.
While the leftovers themselves may not have an increased risk of mold growth, any spills or smudges of food or liquids in the ice chest or assorted picnic totes could go unnoticed and allowed to harbor mold growth, especially if they’re merely emptied and not cleaned that night or the following day(s).
Yet another issue is leaving melted ice to create a stagnant pool in the ice chest that some may leave to fester in a hot garage for several days after an event. Most ice chests are made of incredibly porous plastics, which guarantees there will be an intolerable musty mold odor the next time it is opened for an event.
Picnic baskets—even the more modern ones—are usually lined with fabric. These will need to be sprayed and scrubbed with antimicrobial solutions and set out open in the sun to dry. If no spills occurred, simply open them out in the sun for a few hours to guarantee sterilization for its use next time.
9 helpful tips for keeping your Fourth of July festivities mold-free:
1. Use mold-resistant materials to store your food in, such as metal, glass, and air-tight plastic bags or wraps.
2. Expect spills and smears and clean them immediately. Bring a cleaning solution, a rag or paper towels for wiping/scrubbing, and a towel or two for soaking up liquids.
3. Line the bottom of your picnic basket with paper towels or napkins to help absorb any spills and limit your need to do a deep cleaning later.
4. Line your ice chest with aluminum foil to keep the ice from melting as fast. (Read more here.) This will help you avoid providing comfortable temperatures for the mold to settle and grow.
5. Close each food container after each serving. It won’t hurt your nephew to have to open the casserole dish every time he wants more.
6. Anticipate trash and bring your own trash bag. Do not put trash or soiled items back into the picnic basket or the ice chest.
7. Upon returning home, remove all food items and put them away in their appropriate areas of the kitchen. If you brought hamburger buns, hot dog buns, or any kind of bread, it is highly suggested that you put the remnants in the refrigerator since they’ve probably been in the heat all day. This is suggested because bread is already guaranteed to contain mold due to the process by which grains are stored.
8. Once the food items are removed, immediately drain the ice chest of its ice or water. You can either scrub it down that night with an antimicrobial soap or you can spray it with something containing essential oils and leave it to scrub the next day.
9. As mentioned above, clean the picnic basket fabric the same night—if you can—or just spray it with non-bleaching essential oils to wait for cleaning the next morning. When the sun is out, leave it open outside to be dried and sterilized via sunbathing.
With some foods or some environments, the infiltration of microbes is simply inescapable, which is why you need to know how to prevent mold growth in food storage this Independence Day. Not everyone is going to feel up to staying even later after the fireworks to clean out the ice chest or the picnic basket. And, let’s be honest, some of us won’t even feel like doing it the next day. The least we can do is take note of not only the preventions during the big day, but also the solutions we can take should there be spills and contamination.
For more information regarding mold, mold prevention, and mold solutions, please check out the rest of MoldBlogger.com.
Do you have any moldy picnic or ice chest stories to share? We’d love to read about them in the comments below!