Barbecues are one of the summer season’s greatest pleasures — who doesn’t love laid-back afternoons dining outdoors with friends and family? But while barbecues may feel easy-breezy and stress free, there is one part of the experience you need to be diligent about: food safety. From potato salad that’s been sitting out in the sun too long to potentially cross-contaminated meat, barbecues contain a few opportunities for error as far as food safety is concerned. Fortunately, these are pretty easy to avoid once you know what to look for.
To help guide you along, we reached out to food safety experts for their tips. Here are the foods that food safety experts won’t touch at a summer barbecue.
Burgers And Other Meats Cooked Without A Thermometer
Many people think it’s fine to cook burgers by keeping an eye on their color and texture, but food safety experts say a digital meat thermometer is really important. Checking meat’s internal temperature helps ensure the meat is hot enough to kill illness-causing pathogens like E. coli and salmonella.
“Bacteria that could make you sick, like E. coli, could be present inside the burger, and using a thermometer to check the internal temperature of the food is the only way to make sure the food is safe to eat,” said Ellen Shumaker, a food safety expert and director of outreach for the Safe Plates program at North Carolina State University.
As a general rule, cook your food to these internal temperatures when grilling, according to FoodSafety.gov:
- Poultry: 165 degrees Fahrenheit
- Ground meat: 160 degrees
- Steak: 145 degrees
- Fish: 145 degrees
- Hot dogs: 140 degrees
Meat That Might Be Cross-Contaminated
When Kimberly Baker, a registered dietician and food systems and safety program team director at Clemson University, sees meat on the grill, she asks a few key questions, like:
- Is there a chance that the meat could get recontaminated from the cooking utensil touching raw and then cooked meat?
- Is the cooked meat being placed back on the same plate as the raw meat?
- Is there any marinade or sauce that was used with the raw meat being put back on the cooked meat?
If the answer to any of these questions is yes, she won’t touch it. This is because the meat could be contaminated with pathogens that can make people sick.
Don Schaffner, an extension specialist in food science and distinguished professor at Rutgers University, does the same. In fact, he said cross-contaminated meat is his biggest concern at a barbecue. “I think it’s pretty clear why this food would be problematic as it appears fully cooked but yet contains pathogenic bacteria,” he said.
Foods That Haven’t Been Kept At The Right Temperature
At any barbecue, cold foods like macaroni salad and fruit salad must be kept cold. You should keep cold food refrigerated or in a cooler packed with lots of ice until it’s time to eat, according to the New York State Department of Health. Ideally, cold food should be kept at 40 degrees Fahrenheit or below. You can make sure you’re keeping your food cold enough by using an appliance thermometer, the U.S. Department of Agriculture suggests. Likewise, hot foods should be kept warm using warming trays or thermal protectors.
From macaroni salad to sliced pineapple to grilled burgers, many different types of popular barbecue foods can grow bacteria that causes foodborne illness if they’re left out in the heat for two hours or more, said Tamika Sims, the senior director of food technology communications at the International Food Information Council.
“I would never eat these items or others that are temperature dependent on avoiding bacterial growth,” Sims said. If something hasn’t been stored properly for two hours or more, it’s best to throw it away, she said. And if it’s really hot out — 90 degrees or above — food that hasn’t been stored properly should be thrown away after one hour, according to the USDA.
Food safety experts talk about something called the temperature “danger zone,” which is a temperature range between 40 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit. “Perishable foods — like meat, dairy, cooked vegetables and grains, and cut melons and tomatoes — that are left in the temperature danger zone too long are more subject to rapid pathogen growth,” Baker explained. “Pathogens grow by division so the longer they are in this zone the more that will be produced.”
Vegetables Seasoned With A Marinade That Was Already Used For Meat
Marinated vegetables are delicious, and veggie skewers are a great option for the vegetarians in your crew. But don’t reuse meat marinade when prepping your vegetables or you could introduce harmful bacteria to the vegetables that could make people sick.
You should never use leftover marinade on vegetables that’s already been used for raw meat, poultry or seafood items, according to FoodSafety.gov.
Vegetables Cut On The Same Surface As Raw Meat
Fruits and vegetables can easily be cross-contaminated by raw meat if they’re prepared on the same surface without washing in between. When Shumaker is at a barbecue, she is always looking out for salad and fruit that could have been cross-contaminated by something raw, like ground beef or raw chicken. “This could happen by using the same utensils or plates without cleaning and sanitizing between use, or handling foods with dirty hands,” she said.
One important tip is to never reuse a plate or tray before washing it — especially if it was used to hold raw meat. The USDA also suggests using different cutting boards for raw meat and vegetables.
Food safety experts recommend washing your hands and wiping down your surfaces often, especially if you’ve used that surface to prepare food. Germs that are present on raw or undercooked meat can grow on fruits and vegetables and other foods that are cut or washed on the same surface as the meat, according to the New York State Department of Health. It’s way better to be safe than sorry (and sick), right?