5 cookout food hazards to avoid

Published on May 24 2012 - 3:42 PM
5 Cookout Food Hazards to Avoid

For some reason, food eaten outdoors under the sun tastes better. There is nothing like a burger or hot dog cooked on a grill with a side of macaroni salad, coleslaw or watermelon to celebrate summer.

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Unfortunately, the longer cooked and raw foods sit outside in the sun (such as at a Memorial Day picnic or any warm-weather cookout) the higher the chance for food-borne bacteria to multiply. To keep you and your family safe this summer, we have compiled a list of the 5 most common picnic hazards to avoid—along with our easy tips for safely preparing, cooking and storing food for picnics.

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Hazard #1: Keeping All the Food and Drinks in One Cooler
You should always have one cooler for food and one for drinks. This way, guests can take as many drinks as they want without repeatedly exposing any raw or prepared food to the warm temperature outside. Within the cooler, it’s smart to store everything in its own separate, resealable container. (Keep raw and cooked meat in separate containers and avoid reusing a container that contained raw meat. If burgers are on the menu, store the raw beef patties in a tightly sealed plastic or glass container. Bring along another clean plastic or glass container to hold the burgers once they are cooked.)

To pack your cooler, start with a layer of ice or cooler packs. Next store any raw or marinating meat in a tightly sealed container. Layer from there with any dressed salads, slaws or condiments.

Hazard #2: You Keep Your Food at the Wrong Temperature
When you bring a dish to a picnic or potluck, make sure you keep it at the right temperature until you are ready to eat. Remember this rule: keep cold foods cold and hot foods hot. Transport cool dishes (such as salads, slaws and uncooked burgers) in a cooler and keep them there until you are ready to eat. If you leave perishable foods out of the refrigerator or freezer for more than 2 hours (1 hour in temperatures hotter than 90°F) they may enter the Danger Zone—the unsafe temperatures between 40° and 140°F in which bacteria multiply rapidly. Heat foods that are served warm before the meal and transport them to the picnic in an insulated container. Keep grilled meat warm by moving it to the cool side of the grill. It is fine to serve foods at room temperature, but it is not safe to keep foods that are meant to be served cold (or hot) at room temperature for longer than 4 hours.

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Hazard #3: You Don’t Wash Your Fruits and Vegetables Before Cutting or Serving
You should rinse any fruits before you eat them, including fruit you will cut, such as a watermelon. Rinse fruit under cold water then dry with a clean towel. Store whole and cut fruits and fruit salad in a resealable container or bag in a cooler. Follow the same steps for vegetables.

Hazard #4: The Grill Cook Guesses When the Meat Is Done
To be safe and prevent foodborne illness, cook meat to minimum temperatures recommended by the USDA. Use a digital instant-read thermometer in the thickest part of the meat. Cook beef, pork, veal and lamb (steaks, chops and roasts), to 145°F and allow to rest for at least 3 minutes (the temperature will continue to rise); cook fish and shellfish to 145°F, ground meats to 160°F and all poultry (including ground) to 165°F.

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Hazard #5: Not Cleaning Your Hands
You can pick up a lot of bacteria out in the world, so it’s important to always wash your hands with soap and warm water before you eat or prepare food. We recommend washing your hands before and after handling raw meat. Make sure to bring along hand sanitizer in case you find yourself at a picnic without any running water. You should also have a towel just for drying your hands as well as a towel for cleaning up food messes.

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Emily McKenna has been a recipe tester and developer in the EatingWell Test Kitchen and has worked at Food & Wine Magazine, food52.com and Real Simple Magazine. She is a recent convert to the glories of kale and has a weakness for doughnuts, strawberry licorice and anything her Italian-American grandmother makes, especially pizza.