HEALTH & WELLNESS: Summer food safety

Follow simple steps to avoid foodborne illness this summer. (Observer photos by Stephanie Choate)

As outdoor grilling season gets underway, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service reminds Americans that proper food handling practices can prevent foodborne illness. The warm temperatures that draw people to outdoor celebrations also encourage the growth of bacteria, and incidents of food-related illnesses rise in summer months. But four simple steps—clean, separate, cook, and chill—can help families stay safe this summer.

“Small children and the elderly are among the most vulnerable to foodborne illness, and this information is essential in protecting loved ones at family barbecues and picnics,” said Dr. Elisabeth Hagen, USDA under secretary for food safety.


Food safety starts with clean surfaces and hands. Wash your hands with soap and warm water for 20 seconds before and after handling food. Equally important is making sure that the surfaces that come in contact with raw and cooked foods are clean before you start and are washed frequently.


Raw meats and poultry should be prepared separately from vegetables and cooked foods. As you chop meats and veggies, use separate cutting boards. Juices from raw meats can contain harmful bacteria that could spread to raw veggies and already cooked foods.

As you take the cooked meats off the grill, place them on a clean platter, not on the dish that held them when they were raw. The juices left on the plate from raw meat can spread bacteria to safely cooked food.


Never begin cooking without your most important tool—a food thermometer. Color is not a reliable indicator of doneness. Meat and poultry cooked on a grill often brown quickly and may appear done on the outside, but still may not have reached a safe minimum internal temperature to kill any harmful bacteria. Whole cuts of pork, lamb, veal and beef should be cooked to 145 degrees at the thickest part of the meat, followed by a three-minute rest time before carving or consuming. Hamburgers and other ground beef should reach 160. All poultry should reach a minimum temperature of 165. Fish should be cooked to 145 degrees. Fully cooked meats like hot dogs should be grilled to 165 or until steaming hot.

If you are smoking meats, the temperature in the smoker should be maintained between 225 and 300 degrees for safety. Use your food thermometer to be certain the food has reached a safe minimum internal temperature.


Perishable food should never sit out for more than two hours. If the temperature is higher than 90 degrees—which is common in the summer—food should not sit out more than one hour. Refrigerate or freeze leftovers promptly and discard any food that has been sitting out too long.

It is important to keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold. Hot foods can be kept hot on the grill and cold foods can be chilled in a cooler.

For more information, contact Karen, the USDA’s virtual food safety representative available 24/7 at or on your smartphone.