Tailgating Tips to Keep You From Getting Sick From Foodborne Illnesses

Start of NFL and college football seasons prompt tailgating.

The college football season kicks off this weekend, and the NFL starts for real next week. And with football comes the age-old tradition of The Tailgate.

Every part of the country has a favorite food to throw on the grill, whether it's brats and hotdogs in The Big 10 country, or BBQ beef for SEC and ACC fans. Pair with some sort of pasta dish just about everywhere.

No matter the main dish, there's one thing that everyone can agree on -- no one wants to be a victim after the ball kicks off. Because when it comes to BBQ and grilling, you have to watch out for foodborne illnesses that could not only make you so sick that you won't enjoy the game or potential victory afterwards, it might even require hospitalization. That's no place to celebrate a home team victory.

We love our football stats, but the stats for foodborne illnesses aren't pretty, with more than 100,000 hospitalized a year and 3,000 deaths, mostly from e-coli or salmonella. Nearly 50 million people a year get sick, and you don't want to be responsible for your tailgate party vomiting or getting diarrhea. It's even more important to prevent for the older set, because for those with a weakened immune system, food safety becomes even more crucial.

All of it is preventable, and you should think of prevention of foodborne illnesses the same as the timeframe of a football game. There are four quarters, and you must follow them all to prevent that defeat.

They are: Clean. Separate. Cook. Chill.

Archie Magoulas, a food safety specialist with the US Department of Agriculture says steps people should follow for tailgating are the same ones for camping out.

"You have to prepare in advance like you do if you go to the park and to the beach, but it's different in the sense that when you go there, you may not have running water to clean with," Magoulas says.

That puts clean at the top of the list, because if there's no running water in the parking lot, you must take bottled water. In addition, take towels, moist toilettes and sanitizer.

"You have to clean before and during if you get a little sloppy," Magoulas says. "Even after. You have to make sure you're always clean."

Magoulas says that that doesn't mean that you need to bring enough water to clean every single dish. Things can be packed away and cleaned once you get home. What's important is keeping your hands clean, because bacteria can be spread to food like hamburgers, chicken or seafood. Keep that in mind when you're reheating food too -- or storing leftover to go.

The second item to consider is food separation, and that starts at home. It's important to separate foods in coolers and keep raw meat in one and items you've already served in another.

If you put macaroni salad, coleslaw or luncheon meat in the same containers, they must be sealed to prevent juices from transferring from raw meats.

It's important to have separate plates, even if they're paper plates, when it comes to prepared food versus food about to be cooked. Paper works best because it's disposable, and you don't have to worry about washing, Magoulas says.

Don't forget to bring aluminum foil, thongs, plastic wrap and containers to help maintain separation. That's important if you're going to take home leftovers as well.

What's also important is to bring a meat thermometer to make sure your patties and dogs are cooked safely. The USDA says burgers must be cooked at 160 degrees and poultry at 165 degrees. It falls to 145 degrees for pork chops and seafood like salmon and tuna. Always check the middle for all meats to make sure it's cooked through.

The final step is important both before and after the tailgating. And that's chilling the food.

Take a lot of ice for the coolers, and check the temperature by bringing an appliance thermometer. You want a temperature at 40 degrees or below. Bringing enough ice keeps it in the 30s. That's important because when you're in the 60s and 70s temperature wise, which is considered room temperature, that's a danger zone, Magoulas says. Items can't be kept out more than two hours in that scenario. It lowers to one hour if it's even warmer in the 80s or 90s, he says.

Bacteria grows faster the longer it's left out and with warmer temperatures. That releases toxins that make us sick and can't even be cooked away.

"You kill bacteria when you reheat that food, whether it's a casserole with meat or meatless casserole, beef, veal or chicken," Magoulas says. "But once you have the exposure time, you have to worry about the toxins. It's not just the germs. It's also these toxins."

The USDA has a video on tailgate parties:

The USDA also has a food safety fact sheet on tailgating that's worth a thorough read. Have any questions? Their hotline on meat and poultry is 888-MPHOTLINE.

Now, are you ready for some football?

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