The Top Causes Of Foodborne Illnesses At Barbecues And Cookouts

Food safety experts share what makes them cringe and give their best tips on making sure everyone stays safe.
Iordache Laurențiu / 500px via Getty Images

Backyard barbecues and cookouts with friends are one of the best parts about summer. Walk through your neighborhood on any warm-weather day and you’ll without a doubt inhale the smoky smell of charcoal on the grill.

Here’s the question, though: Do you trust your friends enough to serve you food safely? (Seriously, think about what you saw them do in college and then answer that question.)

Restaurants have strict safety protocols to adhere to, but casual get-togethers are pretty much a free-for-all. Imagine being a food safety expert and attending a barbecue. They’re trained to be aware of potential foodborne illness risks. If you want to make sure the barbecue you’re hosting (or attending) is up to their level of snuff, there are three big risks to be aware of.

Before we get into them, it’s worth underscoring that the pandemic is not over just yet; in fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention expects an uptick in COVID-19 cases as the weather warms, especially if you live in the South. For this reason, it’s important to get vaccinated and boosted if you haven’t already.

OK, ready to talk food? Here are the top causes of foodborne illnesses at barbecues, according to food safety experts.

Reason 1: Germs from your gross friends

“When I think about foodborne illness at a barbecue or cookout, the first thing that comes to mind for me isn’t a certain food per se, but behaviors that can elevate risk,” said Ellen Shumaker, who directs outreach for North Carolina State University’s community food safety program. The number one risky behavior she’s talking about: not washing your hands.

Maybe COVID-19 has turned you off from communal foods for good, but any time you’re sharing food with friends, Shumaker says, you’re at risk of coming into contact with their germs. If someone doesn’t wash their hands properly after going to the bathroom and then they reach for a handful of Ruffles, other people who want chips later are at risk of getting sick. “For this reason, you want to make sure you have a way for everyone to wash their hands at the get-together or have hand sanitizer out for people to use,” Shumaker said.

Reason 2: Food is left out in the sun too long

While you may already know that leaving macaroni salad out in the sun is a bad idea, food safety inspector Jeff Nelken says really any food that needs to be kept either hot or cold shouldn’t be left sitting out. Nelken says food between 40 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit is in what’s known as the “danger zone.” “This is when bacteria starts to multiply and can double as quickly as in 20 minutes,” he said, and food should never be in that zone for longer than two hours.

Don't even think about leaving that potato salad out in the sun.
Christopher Kimball / EyeEm via Getty Images
Don't even think about leaving that potato salad out in the sun.

To be safe, Shumaker advises that cold food dishes shouldn’t be kept out longer than an hour. After that, they need to be put back in the fridge or kept in a cooler with ice packs. They also need to stay colder than 40 F. To make sure that they are, Nelken recommends bringing a pocket food thermometer to your barbecue or cookout. Warm food ― including meat ― needs to be kept above 140 F, according to Nelken.

“If the barbecue or cookout is at someone’s house, I recommend only putting small amounts of food out at a time and then you can replenish with additional small amounts of food as time goes on,” Shumaker said. Not only will this help keep food out of the danger zone, it also cuts back on cross contamination from people getting their food.

Reason 3: The meat is undercooked or has contaminated other foods

Any time meat is being served ― whether it’s burgers, chicken steak or ribs ― there’s a chance of foodborne illness.

Both food safety experts say it’s key that nothing that touches raw meat touches it again once it’s cooked. They recommend having a designated plate and cooking utensils solely devoted to raw meat-handling that should never touch cooked meat.

If you’re grilling veggies or fruit, Shumaker says to not use any of the same plates or cooking utensils that were used for the meat ― and to clean the grill thoroughly first. (Most people don’t want grilled peaches that taste like chicken anyway.)

Nelken said it’s also important that the meat is cooked thoroughly, which is, again, where that food thermometer is key. Chicken should be cooked to at least 165 F, beef should be at least 145 F and ground beef should be at least 160 F, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

As long as you keep this food safety expert intel in mind, your barbecue and cookout should be safe from foodborne illnesses. Now the only worry on your mind will be coming up with an excuse for getting out of work the next day so you can do it again.

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