Beverage and food cooler safety

Traveling with a beverage or food cooler? Follow these six tips to avoid foodborne illness.

The kids are out of school, summer weather has arrived – it’s time to enjoy summer vacation. Inevitably, those plans involve taking a cooler full of food and beverages for the duration of your trip. Good vacation planning should include food safety and coolers are no exception. Michigan State University Extension recommends following these simple guidelines to keep your cooler food-safe this summer:

  1. Use the proper size cooler for the amount of storage needed. Storing a small amount of food in a large cooler can create extra air space that heats up more quickly, making it more difficult to maintain the proper temperature inside the cooler. In contrast, having too much food packed into too small of a cooler will not leave enough space for the proper amount of ice, again, making it difficult to maintain the proper temperature. A cooler should have enough room for food and plenty of ice, leaving little air space inside.
  2. Use a refrigerator thermometer to monitor the temperature inside the cooler. This is a simple tool that is often overlooked when it comes to coolers. Coolers, just like refrigerators, should be kept at 41 degrees Fahrenheit or lower to keep food safe. Place the thermometer near the top or in the internal pockets of the lid, as that is the warmest area of the cooler.
  3. Keep raw meat and egg products separate from ready to eat foods and drinks. Uncooked meat and eggs could be a source of cross-contamination in a cooler, especially when ice starts to melt and the cooler fills with water. Dangerous bacteria could be transferred from this liquid to ready to eat foods or contact surfaces of pop cans, bottles, etc. If possible, keep raw meat and eggs in a cooler separate from other foods, otherwise make sure they are properly sealed to prevent leakage and cross-contamination.
  4. Limit how many times the cooler is opened, as well as the duration it is open. The more times a lid is opened, and for longer times, the faster the ice will melt and the more difficult it will be to regulate the temperature inside.
  5. Try to organize your cooler so that all items needed for one meal are next to each other so they can be grabbed quickly. Also consider putting beverages in their own cooler as they are often a reason for a cooler being opened regularly. This will help keep more perishable food from being subjected to temperature changes.
  6. Clean and sanitize your cooler regularly. Coolers can get pretty “funky” inside, especially if they weren’t cleaned out properly at the end of the previous season. Coolers should be washed before and after each trip with soap and warm water. Sanitize coolers with a 10 percent bleach solution to reduce the number of potential bacteria and mold. Store coolers in a clean, dry place, out of direct sunlight.

Contact your local MSU Extension food safety educator to get a thermometer for your cooler, and visit for more tips on food safety.

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