By: Candess Zona-Mendola

Temperatures are rising. Summer is just around the corner. If you are like us at UnsafeFoods, you already have started preparing your barbecue for your outdoor get-togethers. But with the increase in outdoor temperatures comes an increase in the probability for foodborne illness.  According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), foodborne illnesses are more prevalent in the summer because of two factors – danger zone temperatures and humidity. In short, summer is the perfect time of the year for bacteria to grow in your food.

But do not fret, we have you covered. Below are eight simple ways you can protect your guests and have a safe gathering.

One – Start off Right, Shop Smart

There is a saying that good ingredients are the beginning for great food. Food safety can start as soon as the trip to your neighborhood grocery store. Our friends at STOP Foodborne Illness made a handy list of tips anyone can follow during their trip to the store:

  • “For meat and poultry, check the date and color of the food. Fresh beef is a bright, cherry-red color. Pork is light pink. Poultry shouldn’t have any discoloration.”
  • “While shopping, put raw meat and poultry in plastic bags from the produce department to prevent juices from leaking on other foods.”
  • “At the register, bag raw meat and poultry separate from any other foods.”
  • “Don’t let meat/poultry sit in your car after you’re done at the store. Make grocery shopping your last stop while out or pack your meats in a cooler with ice.”

It is also a good practice to place your meat at the bottom of your cart. This way, if there is any spillage, it does not fall onto any ready-to-eat foods or produce in your cart.

Two – Clean Hands, Clean Food

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) cite that hand washing “is the single most important means of preventing the spread of infection.” They call it a “do-it-yourself” vaccine. Hand washing is quick, cheap, and easy. Yet, despite its simplicity, a recent study by Michigan State University showed that only about 5% of people properly wash their hands. A survey conducted by the American Society for Microbiology found that only about 83% of people washed their hands after using public restrooms. The statistics of the pros of hand washings are plentiful.

The CDC has offered a simple “how to” directive for anyone curious about how to properly wash their hands here.

Three – Clean Cooking and Food Surfaces

We all know that outside is the opposite of clean. With soil, wind, dust, animals, insects, and a slew of other potential vectors for contamination, keeping areas clean is difficult. There are ways to manage the chaos of the great outdoors. By preparing your food indoors, on clean, sanitized food preparation surfaces, you can greatly reduce cross-contamination of outdoor elements. It is a great practice to cover food prior to bringing it outside to also keep those unwanted elements out of your foods.

If you are planning to use the grill, giving it a good scrub first is a great idea. By using a moist cloth or even a paper towel on the grill’s surface, it is easy to remove dirt, debris, and old food remnants from the surface. Wire brushes are not typically recommended by the CDC, as they can leave behind wires that could get lodged into your food.

Four – Keep Raw Foods Separate

Cross-contamination during the food preparation process is the main cause of foodborne illness. It is also one of the most preventable sources. By keeping raw meats away from ready-to-eat foods, you can reduce the risk of cross-contamination. In our kitchens, we like to use color-coded cutting boards. The USDA recommends “[w]ash[ing] plates, utensils, and cutting boards that held the raw meat or poultry before using again for cooked food.”

As always, don’t forget to wash your hands after handling raw meat.

Five – Prep Your Grill

Preparation is one of the best defenders against foodborne illness. It is a good practice to have all of your items ready to start the cooking process before you put meat to grill surface. By collecting your spatula, fork, meat thermometer, grill mitten, and clean plates for your “done” foods, you avoid running back and forth looking for them. This saves you precious time, especially for those hot dogs that are so easily burnt. It is a good idea to preheat your grill prior to cooking to ensure your meat reaches proper cooking temperatures to kill harmful bacteria during the process.

Six – Mind and Monitor Temperatures

On the topic of temperatures, cooking temperatures are important to consider. By cooking foods to their optimum internal temperature, harmful bacteria are killed and foodborne illness can be reduced. According to FoodSafety.gov, the following cooking temperatures are recommended for barbecue staples:

  • “Beef, Pork, Lamb, & Veal (steaks, roasts, and chops): 145 °F with a 3 minute rest time”
  • “Ground meats: 160 °F”
  • “Whole poultry, poultry breasts, & ground poultry: 165 °F”

But cooking temperature is not the only temperature to be concerned with. The Food and Drug Administration’s tagline “Keep hot food hot, and keep cold food cold” is a good rule of thumb. Just because a food is cooked, does not mean that it cannot grow harmful bacteria. Hot foods should be kept at a temperature of about 140 degrees Fahrenheit or above to stay safe to eat. On the flipside, cold foods should be held at temperatures at or below 40 degrees Fahrenheit or below. These are easier to accomplish than you think. For cold foods, the FDA recommends “plac[ing dished] directly on ice or in a shallow container set in a deep pan filled with ice [, and d]rain off water as ice melts and replace ice frequently.” For hot foods, chafing dishes with a base heat source is a great set-up.

Seven – Let Your Meat “Rest”

Letting meat rest is not just a good idea for taste, but also food safety. Allowing meat to rest prior to cooking allows the meat to reach its optimum internal temperature, thus completing the cooking process. According to BeefandLamb.com.au, “Allowing the meat to stand away from the heat before serving allows the juices, which have been driven to the centre of the meat to redistribute throughout the meat and be reabsorbed.”

Not sure how long to rest your meat? Foodsafety.gov has a helpful cooking temperatures and resting chart web accessible here.

Eight – Timing is Key When It Comes to Leftovers

If you are cooking for a crew, odds are you will have leftovers. These foods will be good for about two hours after cooking or one hour if the outside temperature is above 90 degrees Fahrenheit. When storing leftovers, the CDC recommends to “[d]ivide leftovers into smaller portions. Refrigerate or freeze in covered shallow containers for faster cooling.”

We at UnsafeFoods wish you a fun and safe barbecue season.