Bold yellow flames coming up through a grill grate
Before cooking, use a wire brush to clean debris off the grate, then let the fire burn away residues and sterilize the grill. Photo by Danny Gallegos on Unsplash.

Heather N. Kolich, ANR Agent/UGA Extension Forsyth County

Summer is the season for picnics, cookouts, and tailgating parties where food takes center stage. While we’re enjoying the fun and fellowship, we still need to prioritize food safety to keep bacteria from making anyone sick.

At temperatures between 40° and 140° Fahrenheit, bacteria on food can multiply rapidly, potentially doubling every 20 minutes. As bacteria increases, so does the danger that it can cause food-borne illness. Safe grilling and food handling procedures, however, can keep food healthy for everyone to enjoy.

Follow personal safety around the grill. Make sure that you’re dressed appropriately for working over an open flame; roll up shirt sleeves, tuck in shirt hems, tie back long hair, and avoid loose clothing that could billow into the flame. Clean debris off the grill grate with a wire brush. Fire up the grill to let flames burn off remaining residue and sterilize the grate, but never use gasoline, fuel oil, or kerosene to get the fire going. As well as being dangerous, these fuels produce smoke that gives the food an unpleasant aftertaste. Use long-handled grilling utensils to keep hands and arms from getting too close to hot surfaces, and keep a hose or other water source nearby. Always make sure the fire is completely out before leaving the grilling area.

Prepare for cleanliness. Outdoor cooking areas may be short on clean surfaces and convenient washing areas, so pack additional supplies for safe food preparation. These include waxed paper, aluminum foil, disposable plates and utensils to create clean work surfaces; disposable gloves for handling raw meat, poultry, seafood, or eggs; and disposable hand wipes and hand sanitizer. Change to a fresh pair of gloves between handling raw products and food that is ready to eat.

Before packing them, wash reusable utensils and wrap them in plastic wrap to keep them clean during transport. Remove cooked meat from the grill onto clean plates using clean utensils, not the ones used to handle the raw meat.

Keep foods separated. Keep foods that are already cooked, ready to eat, or eaten raw away from uncooked meats and their juices – as well as any utensils and surfaces that the uncooked meats contacted. When packing up, wrap raw meats well to prevent leakage of juices and transport them in their own cooler. Use a different cooler for ready-to-eat foods, salads, and other prepared dishes.

Four burgers on a small grill, one has a meat thermometer showing a fully cooked burger.
Use a food thermometer to ensure that grilled meat and poultry reach the minimum food safe temperature. USDA.

Cook meat, poultry, seafood, and eggs thoroughly. Use a food thermometer to make sure meat items reach the minimum safe internal temperature before removing them from the grill. When cooked over fire or coals, the outside of meat or poultry can brown quickly while the interior remains raw. For patties and chicken pieces, insert the thermometer stem into the side of the food and wait at least 15 seconds to get an accurate temperature reading. Ground beef should reach at least 160° F in the center of the patty. Whole and ground poultry needs to be at least 165° F. Beef, veal, and pork roasts, steaks, and chops should reach 145° F and then be allowed to rest for three minutes before serving.

Keep hot food hot and cold food cold. When cooking or picnicking outside, keep ready-to-eat and prepared food in coolers with plenty of ice. Coolers should be 40° F or lower for food safety. For serving, move the containers to foil pans filled with clean ice.

Once the grilled food is fully cooked, use warming trays to keep it above 140° F. Keep food covered between servings.

A campsite with a large firepit. Two cast iron skillets cooking breakfast food are over the fire.
Clean surfaces and running water may be in short supply when cooking outdoors at parks or campgrounds. Photo by Evan Wise on Unsplash.

While it’s tempting to leave food available for later snacking, food that is left out has lots of exposure to contaminants and will quickly enter the temperature danger zone of 40°-140° F. Try to plan food quantities for immediate consumption. If there are leftovers, discard food that is left out after two hours. If the outdoor temperature is 90° F or higher, discard excess food after one hour. While that may seem wasteful, it is better to throw away unsafe food than suffer the illness it can cause.