The aroma of food cooking on the grill. Tables covered with side dishes and delicious desserts of all types. Sharing it all with family and friends. Who can resist the smells and tastes of a barbecue? But as the weather warms up and the outdoor eating season begins, we have to be on the lookout for uninvited guests that can spoil the fun for everyone. We’re talking about harmful bacteria that can thrive in conditions found at almost every outdoor gathering where food is served. But you don’t have to let these invaders ruin your fun. By taking a few steps before, during, and after your next barbecue, everyone (except the bacteria) can stay safe and have fun.
A brief lesson about bacteria
Bacteria are everywhere—literally. They’re in or on almost all parts of our body. They’re in the soil we walk on. The air we breathe. The water we drink, bathe, and play in. And, yes, even in the food we eat. Bacteria are usually beneficial for people and actually help us survive. For example, certain bacteria in the stomach digest the food we eat so we get the nutrients we need. But when bacteria have the right mix of nutrients (food), moisture, temperature, and time, they can multiply rapidly, sometimes to the point where they can cause illness in people. And a perfect environment for this is on food that has been left out too long at temperatures between 40 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit. (Think of how high the temperature in your backyard during the summer months can get!) And that contributes to the 48 million people in America who get sick every year from what we commonly call food poisoning.
Step 1: It all starts with proper preparation
- Thaw frozen foods in the refrigerator or cook them frozen.
- Keep raw meat, poultry, and seafood securely wrapped. This will prevent leakage that could contaminate other foods.
- Wash your hands with soap and water before and after handling food. If running water isn’t available, you can use hand sanitizer or disposable wet wipes. You can also bring jugs of water and hand soap with you.
- Marinate foods in the refrigerator—NEVER on the kitchen counter or a table outdoors.
- Rinse fresh fruits and vegetables under running water before serving them.
Step 2: Keep food safe before it’s served
- Keep cold foods cold. That means 40 degrees Fahrenheit or below. Put cold foods in a cooler with plenty of ice or frozen gel packs. Cold foods include items like uncooked meat and poultry, deviled eggs, and macaroni and potato salads.
- Keep hot foods hot. That means 140 degrees Fahrenheit or above. If you can’t serve cooked foods right away, keep them hot. Move them to the side of the grill rack away from the coals or burners. The food will stay hot, but won’t overcook. You can also put cooked foods in a well-insulated container until you serve them.
- Keep food and beverages in separate coolers. The beverage cooler is likely to be opened more (and exposed to more warm air) than the food cooler.
Your friend the meat thermometer
Lots of backyard chefs like to think that they can tell when the burgers or filets are done just by looking at them. But the bottom line is, they’re probably overestimating their skills! The surest way to know that food is cooked thoroughly is by checking its internal temperature with a meat thermometer. But what is the right temperature for a hamburger, chicken, or fish? Or just about anything else? A visit to Safe Minimum Cooking Temperatures will give you the answers you’re looking for!
Step 3: Serve food the safe way
- Don’t let foods sit out too long before serving them. Whether they’re hot or cold, foods should not sit out for more than 2 hours—or more than 1 hour when the temperature is above 90 degrees Fahrenheit.
- When serving food, don’t reuse plates or utensils that you used with raw foods. Wash them thoroughly first, or use clean ones.
- Put foods such as salads and desserts in individual serving dishes and set them directly over ice or in a shallow container that’s set in a deep pan filled with ice.
Step 4: Take care of that doggy bag
- If you’re taking food home with you, put it in a cooler. Be sure to unpack the cooler as soon as you get home.
- Refrigerate meats and salads if they have stayed cold. If they’ve become warm, toss them.
- 1. NIH: National Cancer Institute. NIH Human Microbiome Project defines normalbacterial makeup of the body; Genome sequencing creates first reference data for microbes living with healthy adults. June 13, 2012. Accessed May 4, 2017.
- 2. USDA Food Safety Information. How Temperatures Affect Food. Accessed April 12, 2017.
- 3. Safe Food Handling: What You Need to Know. Accessed March 23, 2017.
- 4. Eating Outdoors, Handling Food Safely. Accessed March 23, 2017.
- 5. Perfect Food Safe Picnics! Accessed March 23, 2017.