Food recalls like the recent recall of potentially tainted eggs are important to pay attention to. But food-safety experts warn that it’s not tainted meat or contaminated spinach and sprouts that ruin most cookouts. “It’s the everyday things that people do at home that they’re getting sick from,” says CiCi Williamson, food-safety expert at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service. “Not washing hands remains a primary cause of foodborne illness,” she says.
So while we all demand a safer food system, we also need to follow these five easy tips to control common sources of contamination at backyard barbecues. (Tip 0: Wash your hands first!)
1. Use clean plates
Putting cooked meat back on the same plate used to hold the raw meat is one of the most common, and worst, things people do at barbecues, says Williamson. When raw and cooked meet touch, or their juices mix, bacteria can make a move from raw to cooked. Use separate plates for cooked and raw meat, and save your guests the stomachache later on.
2. Soak safely
Marinated meat certainly tastes better, but don’t leave it out on the counter while it’s marinating; put it back in the fridge. If you’re tempted to reuse the marinade, either by freezing it to use on another steak, or as a sauce to serve alongside the meat, rethink that idea, says Williamson. Bacteria can linger in frozen marinades, she says. “If you want to use any to brush on the meat or as a sauce, boil it first,” she suggests.
3. Cut down on lag time
Precooking meat, that is, cooking it inside in the stove or microwave first and then finishing the job on the grill, helps cut down on charring and takes less time overall, but, says Williamson, it’s also one more way to expose yourself to illness. She says many people will partially cook meat the night or the morning before a cookout, but doing that allows bacteria to continue growing, even if you refrigerate it afterward. “Some bacteria can make a toxin or poison that you can’t kill with heat,” she says. If you’re going to partially cook meat, you need precook it minutes, not hours, before it goes on the grill.
4. Keep cold food cold
Another common seasonal food-safety issue for both barbecues and picnics is keeping food unrefrigerated for a dangerously long time. “The two main problems of foodborne illness in the U.S.” says Williamson, “are not cooking food to a high-enough temperature, and leaving food out at an unsafe temperature.” Don’t leave any food items out for longer than two hours, she adds, and in very hot, 90-degree-plus temperatures, take it inside after an hour. Keep cold food—your potato salads and deviled eggs and whatnot—packed in a cooler that’s filled 75 percent with food and 25 percent with ice or frozen drinks or cold packs, to allow cold air to circulate freely. Cold food should be kept at 40°F or below.
5. Keep hot food hot
Food thermometers are perhaps the most underused tools available for grilling. “It’s hard to tell when things are done on a grill just by looking,” Williamson says. An overly blackened burger may still be raw on the inside, she adds, while thoroughly cooked meat from a smoker can still look pink because of the way smoke interacts with meat. “Using a food thermometer to test food to make sure it’s completely done is the best way to make sure you aren’t undercooking or overcooking your meat.” Your food will be tastier as well as safer.
Find more safety tips for barbecues and smoking meat at the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service website.