Keep Memorial Day Cookouts Safe

Posted: May 26, 2012

Many Americans will celebrate Memorial Day by grilling or attending cookouts. The USDA reminds consumers that following safe food handling steps are the key to making your cookout safe and healthy for your guests.

Below are a few tips from the USDA for keeping your barbecue safe:

     1. Clean: First things first – start with clean surfaces and clean hands. You and your guests should wash your hands with soap and warm water for 20 seconds before and after handling food. Equally important are the surfaces that come in contact with raw and cooked foods – make sure they are clean before you start and are washed frequently. 

     2. Separate: Raw meats and poultry should be prepared separately from produce and cooked foods. Use separate cutting boards when chopping raw meats and produce, as juices from raw meats may contain harmful bacteria that can cross-contaminate ready-to-eat foods. 

     3. Cook: Your food thermometer is the most important tool that will tell you if your food is thoroughly cooked, as color is not a reliable indicator of doneness. Meat and poultry cooked on a grill often brown quickly and may appear done on the outside, but still may not have reached a safe minimum internal temperature to kill any harmful bacteria. Steaks, roasts and chops should be cooked to 145 °F. Hamburgers should reach 160 °F. Take extra care with frozen hamburgers as these take longer to reach a safe internal temperature throughout the patties. It is important to measure the temperature in several areas of your burgers.  All poultry should reach a minimum of 165 °F. Fish should be cooked to 145 °F. Fully cooked meats like hot dogs should be grilled to 165 °F or until steaming hot. 

      As you take the cooked meats off the grill, be sure to place them on a clean plate or platter, NOT on the unwashed dish that held them when they were raw. The juices left on the plate from the raw meats can cross-contaminate cooked foods.

     4. Chill: Keeping food at a safe temperature is always a major concern at picnics and cookouts. Too often, food is prepared and left to sit out while guests munch over the course of several hours. However, bacteria can start to grow on perishable food that has been sitting out too long.

     It’s important to keep hot food hot and cold food cold. Hot food can be kept safe at 140 °F or above in chafing dishes, slow cookers or warming trays, and cold food can be kept chilled at 40 °F or below with ice packs or ice sources underneath

      Perishable food should never sit out for more than two hours. If the temperature is above 90°F – which is common at summer picnics – perishable foods shouldn't sit out more than one hour. Refrigerate or freeze leftovers promptly, and discard any food that has been out too long. 

     For more information about safe cookouts or other food safety questions, contact the USDA’s Meat and Poultry Hotline at 1-888-MPHotline (1-888-674-6854).

Recorded messages are available 24 hours a day and the Hotline is staffed with food safety experts, Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Eastern Time.
Karen Thomas is a family and consumer sciences educator for Penn State Cooperative Extension in Lackawanna County.