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How to Avoid Foodborne Illness at Your Summer Cookout


June 23, 2021

Summer is a great time to enjoy the outdoors and all the delicious food the season has to offer. With warmer weather upon us, you will likely start cooking out more often with family, friends and loved ones. This is a great opportunity to enjoy fresh vegetables and grilled foods, but it's also an opportune time to develop a foodborne illness. To avoid getting sick after a cookout, keep these food safety tips in mind this summer:

Keep Foods Separate

Picture it. You are preparing a salad for your next cookout. Have you washed the vegetables thoroughly before mixing them in? Was there any raw meat around the prep area for the salad ingredients? Just because things are in separate dishes doesn't mean “splashback” (particles that release from the hand or food during prep, i.e., making burger patties) from preparation is impossible. Keep raw and ready-to-use foods out of the same prep area at the same time.

If you plan to grill meat and vegetables, keep them on separate dishes. Just because both are being grilled doesn't mean all the bacteria from the meat will be cooked off the vegetables. Use separate tongs for these items on the grill. You do not want to flip a half-cooked burger with the same spatula you are going to use for your grilled asparagus or eggplant. A good rule of thumb is to use one set of dishes and utensils for vegetables and another for raw meats.

If you like your burger rare to medium-well, there will also be meat juices after cooking. Remember, that any ground meats cooked within this spectrum increase your risk of foodborne illness (to be discussed at length in a moment).

Get a Meat Thermometer

Ground meats cooked rare to medium-well may not reach the required temperature to prevent foodborne illness. Ground meats need to be cooked at a higher temperature than steak because foodborne contaminants reside on the outside of the meat; the grinding process mixes everything up, which means the entire burger is now exposed. To limit your risk of exposure, get a meat thermometer. Do not leave the thermometer in the oven or grill (unless you purchase a type that allows it), otherwise it will melt. Here are some temperatures to remember:

  • Ground meats: 155 degrees or higher
  • Poultry (such as chicken breast): 165 degrees or higher
  • Steak/pork chops: 145 degrees or higher
  • Fish/seafood: 135 degrees or higher

Time/Temperature Abuse Is Real

Let's say the grill gets fired up around noon with food on the table by 1 p.m. The cookout lasts until sunset. The food gets packed up and either refrigerated or sent home with guests to enjoy. Did anyone consider that the potato salad was left out for seven hours? How about the burgers and chicken that were on the serving platter for five to six hours? Food that stays out that long, whether it is raw or cooked, can and will be exposed to contamination simply by what is called time/temperature abuse. This means that the food was left out too long at an unsafe temperature and is now contaminated. To avoid time/temperature abuse, keep these simple rules in mind:

  • Cooked foods can stay at 140 degrees or higher for up to four hours*
  • Cold/ready-to-serve foods can stay under 40 degrees for up to four hours*
  • When food is between 40-140 degrees, it may stay in this range for no more than two hours*
  • *Food must then be discarded after this time

Clean Everything (Especially Your Hands)

The easiest way to prevent foodborne illness is by washing your hands with a good soap and cleaning surfaces with an antimicrobial wipe or spray. Be sure to wash your hands for at least 30 seconds under the hottest water you can tolerate, using plenty of soap. Dry your hands with a non-reusable towel or air dryer. Wash your hands between handling any undercooked/raw meat or meat products and vegetables. Be sure to wash all surfaces, cutting boards, knives and utensils between preparation of undercooked/raw meat or meat products and vegetables. And don't forget about the sink! Many people do raw meat prep (such as placing scraps, rinsing meat off, etc.) in the sink. Without washing, the same contaminants from the meat will now touch anything that goes into the sink (including during dish washing).

It may sound daunting, but foodborne illness and cross-contamination can be easily prevented. Remember these few tips to help you enjoy your summer cookouts with the peace of mind that everyone will be safe from the effects of bacterial contamination from food. Happy eating!

The information on these pages is provided for general information only and should not be used for diagnosis or treatment, or as a substitute for consultation with a physician or health care professional. If you have specific questions or concerns about your health, you should consult your health care professional.

The images being used are for illustrative purposes only; any person depicted is a model.

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