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Your healthiest barbecue starts here

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It’s peak season for foodborne illness. So, before you fire up the grill, learn how to sidestep common mistakes that increase your risk of getting sick.

Communities come alive in the summertime. There are Little League games to attend. Block parties to throw. And plenty of picnics and backyard barbecues to host. Know what else comes alive in the summer? Foodborne germs. They love warm, humid weather. And they can multiply fast.1 No wonder summer is peak food poisoning season.2 Keep your outdoor feast safe by following these essential food safety tips.

Keep your coolers cool

A summer outing almost always starts with packing a cooler. Maybe you’re bringing drinks and salads. Or, you’re in charge of sandwiches and raw meats for the grill. Whatever you’re bringing, you want to keep it cold. Here’s how:

  • Pack in plenty of cold sources. Those include ice, gel packs and even frozen juice boxes or water bottles. And fill coolers up all the way. Full coolers will stay cold longer than half-empty ones.1

  • Try not to open coolers too often. And don’t leave them open for too long. If you can, pack drinks in their own cooler. It’s likely to be opened more often as people help themselves. Only have one? Just pack drinks on top so they’re handy.1

  • Keep coolers in the shade or covered with a blanket. While traveling, stow them inside the car where the air conditioning is running, not in the trunk.4

  • Keep a thermometer in your cooler to check the temp. If it gets above 40°F3, add more ice if possible. If you can’t, the food will be safe for about two more hours. After that, it’s best to trash what’s left.1, 2

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How to lower the chance of cross-contamination

Raw meat can have dangerous germs on its surface. If you’re not careful, they can get on fresh produce or ready-to-eat foods. This is called cross-contamination. Here’s how to keep it from happening2:

  • Use separate cutting boards, knives and other utensils for meat and fresh produce. If something touches raw meat, set it aside.

  • Wash those utensils with soap and very hot water before using them for anything else. That includes your hands. If you don’t have running water, use hand sanitizer to clean hands. Clean cutting boards, utensils and surfaces with alcohol wipes.

  • Do not place cooked meat on the same platter that held raw meat. Serve cooked meat directly from the grill. Or move it to a separate clean plate or platter for serving.

Cook meats to safe temperatures

Meat is a common culprit for foodborne illnesses. To kill the germs, you’ll need to get those burgers and steaks to a certain temperature. Here’s how:

  • Cook ground meat to 160°F.
  • Cook ground and whole cuts of poultry to 165°F.
  • Cook whole cuts of beef, pork or lamb to 145°F. Let it rest for at least 3 minutes before cutting into it.
  • Cook fish to 145°F.
  • Reheat precooked meats such as hot dogs to 165°F.3

The best way to ensure that meat is thoroughly cooked is to use a meat thermometer. Stick the thermometer into the thickest part of the meat. For thin, flat cuts of meat such as hamburgers or steak, try sticking the thermometer in through the side.

Keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold while serving

Keep cold foods below 40°F and hot foods above 140°F. Anything in between is the danger zone. Germs can grow very quickly in this temperature range. They can double in as little as 20 minutes. That’s according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

If foods are in this temperate range for more than two hours, throw them away. Germs grow even faster between 90°F and 110°F. If it’s warmer than 90°F outside, don’t leave food out for more than one hour.

Try some of these strategies to keep your outdoor food at a safe temperature:

  • Keep cold dishes over ice. Place a bowl of cold salad into a larger bowl filled with ice. Or set cold platters over a baking sheet filled with ice. Another idea: Serve cold foods quickly, then pop the containers back into the cooler to store.

  • Don’t forget about condiments. They need to be on ice, too.

  • For hot dishes, consider using a chafing dish. This is a dish propped over a heat source. Professional caterers use these to keep dishes hot. You can find low-cost ones at party supply stores.

  • If you have access to electricity, plug in a slow cooker or hot plate to keep foods warm.

  • Set up a “holding zone” on the grill. This is a spot that’s not directly above the coals or flames. Put cooked foods here to keep them warm.

  • Keeping foods covered will also help hold temperatures. It keeps bugs away, too.

Check the temperature of foods often to make sure they’re not in the danger zone. Be sure to use a different thermometer than the one you used to measure the meat temp. If you don’t have two: Clean it with an alcohol wipe before using it again.

Storing and keeping food at a safe temperature outdoors will always be a challenge. But with careful planning, you can pack only what you’ll need so nothing goes to waste.

Safer foods for hot weather

If you want a little less stress, work some of these dishes onto the menu. They hold up to the heat better:

  • Dry snacks such as chips, pretzels, crackers, or trail mix. These foods are unlikely to have harmful germs that will grow in warm weather. Skip the meat-and-cheese platter. Fill one with crackers, dried fruit and nuts.

  • Dips made without dairy. If you need a dip to go with your snacks, choose ones made without dairy or mayonnaise. Those can spoil quickly. Salsa, guacamole and hummus are safer options.

  • Fresh fruit or fruit salad. Whole fruit is portable and safe at any temperature. Just be sure to wash it with clean water before leaving the house. A fruit salad dressed with lime juice and honey (not yogurt) will also hold up well.

  • Slaws and salads dressed with oil and vinegar. Dress salads and slaws with oil and vinegar or a vinaigrette (a sauce made of oil and vinegar). Don’t use with dairy products. To keep salads crisp, store the dressing on the side. Toss it just before serving.

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Sources

  1. FoodSafety.gov. Keep food “cool for the summer” to avoid foodborne illness. Accessed June 8, 2022.
  2. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Handling food safely while eating outdoors. Last updated February 17, 2022. Accessed June 8, 2022.
  3. U.S. Department of Agriculture. Danger Zone (40° F - 140° F). Last updated June 28, 2017. Accessed June 8, 2022.
  4. U.S. Department of Agriculture. Food safety while hiking, camping & boating. Last updated June 3, 2022. Accessed July 6, 2022.
  5. Harvard School of Public Health. Tips for a health summer picnic. N.D. Accessed July 6, 2022.