The days are getting longer (and hotter!) and the summer grilling season is well underway. As you begin your backyard cookouts, the USDA reminds you that safe food handling skills are the key to making your cookout a big hit with your family and friends.
“When you’re enjoying a cookout with friends and family, the last thing you want to do is make them sick,” says Under Secretary for Food Safety Dr. Richard Raymond. “Before you even fire up the grill, you need to be aware of safe grilling and food preparation practices that will make sure your guests enjoy a tasty and safe meal.”
Whether you’re hosting a neighborhood barbecue or cooking for a few friends and family members, the USDA’s Meat and Poultry Hotline offers four easy steps to help you Be Food Safe and reduce the threat of foodborne illness:
1. Clean. First things first, make sure you start with clean surfaces and clean hands. Be sure that you and your guests wash your hands before preparing or handling food. Hands should be washed 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 veggies and cooked foods. When you chop meats and veggies, be sure to use separate cutting boards. Juices from raw meats can contain harmful bacteria that could cross-contaminate raw veggies and already cooked foods.
3. Cook. Masters of the grill are no match for foodborne illness, so it’s important to have all the right tools. 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.
A Matter of Degrees
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 145º Hamburgers should reach 160º. All poultry should reach a minimum of 165º. Fish should be cooked to 145º. Fully cooked meats like hot dogs should be grilled to 165º 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.
If you prefer to prepare meats using a smoker, the temperature in the smoker should be maintained between 225º and 300º for safety. Be sure to use your food thermometer to be certain the food has reached a safe minimum internal temperature.
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 140º or above in chafing dishes, slow cookers or warming trays, and cold food can be kept chilled at 40º or below with ice packs or ice sources underneath.
Perishable food should never sit out for more than two hours. And if the temperature is above 90º which can be 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 sat out too long.
Help Available Via Hotline or Online
One of the best resources available before you plan a summer cookout is USDA’s virtual representative, “Ask Karen,” a feature that allows you to ask food safety-related questions 24 hours a day. Visit “Ask Karen” at AskKaren.gov. Food safety coaches are available by phone at 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.