Food safety woes spike during grilling, picnic seasons

May 26, 2017

Grillmeisters who have been eagerly awaiting the arrival of another outdoor cooking season should remember one thing: barbecues and picnics can be hazardous to our health.

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But experts note that taking a few simple precautions can prevent a fun family outing from taking a tragic turn.

Recent research by the United States Department of Agriculture and the United States Food and Drug Administration found that less than one-fourth of Americans use a food thermometer when cooking hamburgers.

“I don’t think people realize how tricky it can be to cook food safely,” said Marianne Gravely, a senior technical information specialist with the USDA’s Meat and Poultry Hotline. “We know that only about 24 percent of consumers use a food thermometer when they’re cooking hamburgers, and that’s of concern to us because really the best and only way to make sure that bacteria have been killed, and food is safe to eat, is by cooking it to the correct internal temperature measured by a food thermometer. It’s a very simple step that can stop your family and guests from getting foodborne illness.”

Marianne Gravely is with the USDA's Meat and Poultry Hotline

The U.S Center for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 48 million people are affected by foodborne illnesses every year. The maladies result in about 128,000 hospitalizations and 3,000 deaths.

Experts say four easy steps can prevent most foodborne illnesses.

Clean: Wash your hands and any surface that can or already has come into contact with any raw meat or poultry. If cooking outside or away from a kitchen, bring extra materials to clean your hands and surfaces with you.

Separate: Don’t reuse the same platter you used for raw food with cooked food. And when taking food off the grill, only use clean utensils.

Cook: Use a food thermometer to make sure your meat or poultry is at the correct internal temperature. Place the thermometer in the thickest part of the food.

Chill: Place leftovers in shallow containers and refrigerate or freeze them as soon as possible.

The USDA also warns people to avoid the “danger zone.”

“The danger zone is the temperature range between 40 and 140 degrees,” said Gravely. “That’s the temperature where bacteria grow most quickly. In the summer time, they do grow even faster because of the warm weather. In addition to the danger zone we have what we call the two-hour rule. They go hand-in-hand. You don’t want food sitting in the danger zone for more than two hours, but if it’s hot out … you don’t want food to sit out for more than one hour.”

Gravely suggested a few additional tips during the picnic season.  

“There are some extra things you can do, like bringing along wet towels or moist towelettes so that you can keep things clean,” said Gravely. “If you are going to be off at a picnic and you are packing your food in a cooler, bring two coolers -- one for the drinks one for the food -- so the food doesn’t warm up when people are opening up the cooler frequently to get drinks out. You want to also keep your cooler in the shade so that it stays a little bit cooler.”

The USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline fields questions Monday through Friday, from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. EST. People can call 1-888-674-6854) or visit AskKaren.gov.