When it comes to food safety while tailgating, keep four words in mind: Clean. Separate. Cook. Chill.
Most of us can’t wait until football starts. Put me on that list. And the very last thing any of us think about is food safety—but that should change.
enjoy the going to the games at the stadium, and nothing’s better than kicking it off by tailgating with you friends, family and fellow fans.
As a Midwest guy, it’s brats and hotdogs for me. But whatever you like to eat in each region of the country, the last thing we want is not doing our tailgating safely and coming down with a foodborne illness. That would spoil the experience and make it quickly forgettable, even if our team won.
Not only that, it’s dangerous.
While the food supply in the US is one of the safest in the world, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that each year roughly one in six Americans or 48 million people gets sick, 128,000 are hospitalized and 3,000 die from foodborne diseases, which includes e-coli and salmonella.
Well, Archie Magoulas, a food safety specialist with the US Department of Agriculture, says there are four steps to help keep us safe during the tailgating season. Think of it not unlike four quarters of a football game(Clean. Separate. Cook. Chill.)
“With tailgating, it’s similar to camping out or going out,” Magoulas says. “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.”
You have to figure out how you’re going to wash your hands because there isn’t any water in the stadium parking lots, he says. One solution is taking a bottle of water. You should also take towels, moist toilettes and sanitizer.
“You have to clean before and maybe during if you get a little sloppy,” Magoulas says. “Even after. You have to make sure you’re always clean.”
That doesn’t mean everything has to be washed there when you’re done. You can pack it away and clean everything when you’re home, he says. Dirty hands means bacteria can be spread to the food whether it’s to hamburgers, chicken or seafood. That even applies if you’re just reheating food, he says.
“You want to definitely be clean when you’re preparing the food, serving it and storing leftovers if you have any,” Magoulas says.
It’s important to separate the foods you bring in different coolers. Keep the raw meat in one and the items you’re ready to serve in another. That may include macaroni salad or coleslaw, salads or luncheon meat. If you have to put them together, they must be sealed tightly to make sure no juices transfer from the raw meats, he says.
Make sure you have separate plates, even if they’re paper plates, for prepared food versus food’s that about to be cooked. Paper is best because it’s easily disposable, and you don’t have to worry about washing plates afterward, he says.
Every cookout needs aluminum foil, thongs, plastic wrap and containers to help maintain separation. That’s important if you’re going to take home leftovers as well, he says.
The USDA recommends using a meat thermometer to make sure your protein’s cooked safely, whether it’s burgers at 160 degrees and poultry at 165 degrees (even for turkey burgers and chicken burgers). Pork chops should be cooked at 145 degrees and make sure you check in the middle, he says. Checking the middle also applies to cuts of beef, veal and lamb. If there’s seafood at the tailgate, salmon and tuna should be cooked at 145 degrees at a minimum.
This is a step that’s key before and after, he says.
It’s important to take a lot of ice for coolers in which to bring the food and make sure it’s cold, he says. An appliance thermometer helps keep a temperate of 40 degrees or below, he says. If you have enough ice, you’ll keep it in the 30s.
When you’re in the 60s and 70s temperature wise, which is considered room temperature, that’s a danger zone, he says. Items can’t be kept out more than two hours in that case. It lowers to one hour if it’s even warmer in the 80s or 90s.
What happens is bacteria grows faster the longer it’s left out and warmer it is. That prompts the release of toxins that make us sick, and those can’t be cooked off, Magoulas says.
“A lot of people call us on the hotline and say I left the food out and how about because I cooked already can I cook it off,” Magoulas says. “You kill bacteria when you reheat that food, whether it’s a casserole with meat or meatless casserole, beef, veal or chicken. 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.”
Here’s a fact sheet from the USDA on tailgating. http://www.fsis.usda.gov/wps/portal/fsis/topics/food-safety-education/get-answers/food-safety-fact-sheets/safe-food-handling/tailgating-food-safety-q-and-a/ct_index.
The USDA hotline on meat and poultry is 888-MPHOTLINE.