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Tailgating brings food safety concerns for families

Make sure that late summer cookout during tailgating or picnic at the pool is memorable for the right reasons. Food poisoning is not only sure to ruin the good time, for pregnant women and young children, it can be especially dangerous.

Marianne Gravely, a member of the Food Safety Education staff at the United State Department of Agriculture, said summer’s higher temperatures and increased time spent outdoors can mean that food safety takes a hit. Summer ends Sept. 22, and until then, temperatures can rise and fall. Food safety is especially important when tailgating during football season.

“We know that the incidents of food poisoning increase during the summertime,” she said. “There is more room for accidents to happen.”

Gravely said 48 million Americans suffer food poisoning each year, leading to 128,000 hospitalizations and 3,000 deaths. Pregnant women, children and the elderly are at the highest risk. 

The USDA advises four steps to keeping food safe: clean, separate, cook and chill.

“Always be sure to wash your hands with soap for 20 seconds,” Gravely said. “Tell children to sing the Happy Birthday song twice.”

For cookouts and picnics, Gravely said it is a good idea to have disposable wipes handy for cleaning hands. 

Keeping raw and cooked foods separate is also important.

“Avoid cross-contamination, which is when bacteria from raw meat and poultry get on food that’s not going to be cooked,” Gravely said. 

Use a clean plate to take cooked foods from the grill and use separate cutting boards when preparing food.

When cooking, Gravely said a visual inspection can’t substitute for a food thermometer.

“It’s the only way to know it is safe,” she said. “Color is not a reliable way to know it is safe. Not only will you know if it’s cooked, you won’t overcook it.”

Safe internal temperature guidelines for meat and poultry are 145°F with a 3-minute rest time for beef, pork, lamb and veal, 160°F for ground meats and 165°F for whole poultry, poultry breasts and ground poultry. 

Keeping food cool is especially important. 

“Discard any food that has been out at room temperature for two hours – if you are outside, no longer than one hour,” Gravely said. 

One trick Gravely uses is to divide dishes in to smaller containers, putting one out for guests and keeping the other in the refrigerator or on ice until it is needed. At a picnic, she recommends using a separate cooler for drinks because it is likely to opened repeatedly. 

Gravely said children can begin to learn food safety lessons early. She recommends keeping juice boxes and water bottles in the freezer so they can double as ice packs for trips to the pool. And she said parents should take care to treat common perishable snacks, like cheese sticks, carefully. 

“It’s not necessarily a shelf-stable item,” she said. “It’s a good time to start teaching them about food safety.”

What you can do

Try the USDA’s Food Keeper app for Android and Apple. It offers storage advice for hundreds of foods, tips for safe cooking and more.

Use to ask food safety questions, live chat with an expert and more.

For food safety questions, call the USDA’s Meat and Poultry hotline at 1-888-MPHotline. 

Learn more about how to use a food thermometer at