Bulletin #4278, Barbecue and Tailgating Food Safety

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Food Safety Facts

grilling hamburgers

Originally adapted by Mahmoud El-Begearmi, Extension professor, nutrition and food safety, University of Maine Cooperative Extension, from USDA Release # 0483.94 as The ABCs of Barbecue.
Revised and updated by Jason Bolton, associate Extension professor and food safety specialist, University of Maine Cooperative Extension.

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Many of us enjoy cookouts, backyard barbecues, and tailgating with family and friends. Unfortunately, barbeque season brings an increase in foodborne illness. Follow these guidelines to avoid foodborne illness when grilling and tailgating.


Whether you are grilling, baking, or microwaving meat, fish, or chicken, defrost (thaw) your frozen food properly. Never thaw your food in hot water, or leave it out on the counter all day. These ways of thawing are not safe, and increase your risk of foodborne illness.

Meat, poultry, egg products, or any perishable foods, whether raw or cooked, must be kept at a safe temperature while thawing to avoid foodborne illness. While frozen, foods are considered safe because any bacteria are not active. But as soon as the food begins to thaw and get warmer than 40°F, bacteria that may have been on the food before freezing can grow rapidly. Even if the core of the food is still frozen, the surface can reach the danger zone of 40°F to 140°F. Danger-zone temperatures allow bacteria to multiply dangerously.

There are three safe ways to thaw food:

  • In the refrigerator
  • In cold water
  • In the microwave for immediate cooking

The best way to thaw food is in the refrigerator, where it will remain safe at 40°F or below. It’s best to plan ahead for slow, safe thawing in the refrigerator. Small items may defrost overnight. But most foods require a day or two. Large items like turkeys may take longer, about one day for each five pounds of weight.

For faster thawing, place food in a leak-proof plastic bag and put it in cold water. (If the bag leaks, bacteria from meat can contaminate the water and spread to other surfaces and surroundings.) Check the water often to be sure it stays cold. Change the water every 30 minutes. After thawing, cook food immediately. This method of thawing takes more work.

When microwave-defrosting food, some parts may become warm and begin to cook during microwaving. So cook microwave-defrosted food right away.


Marinate raw meat, fish, poultry, or any perishable food in the refrigerator, not on the counter. Before adding raw meat or poultry to your marinade, set some aside to use later as a dip or basting sauce. It is best not to reuse marinade that raw meat has been soaked in. If you must use it, bring the marinade to a rolling boil and hold the boil for five minutes to kill any bacteria in the marinade.


To save grilling time, you can partially cook meat or poultry ahead of time. But be sure to finish it up on the grill right away. The food should go right from the microwave, range, or oven to the grill in a one continuous cooking process. Never grill meat or poultry part way and finish cooking it later. On-and-off cooking is risky. If you must cook ahead of serving time, cook the meat completely. Then cool it fast to put on the grill later. Either way, be sure to cook the meat thoroughly.


When moving food from one place to another, keep food at 40°F or below. This is best done by using an insulated cooler with plenty of frozen ice packs. You should pack the cooler immediately before leaving home, moving food from the refrigerator right to the cooler.

Keep the cooler in the shade. Don’t open the lid too often. Pack drinks separately from perishable foods.

How Do I Keep Food Safe at Tailgating Events? (YouTube)

Keeping Things Clean

Whether you are grilling at home or somewhere else, make sure you have clean utensils, platters, and plates. To prevent foodborne illness, use different utensils and platters for raw meat and poultry than for cooked meat and poultry. Raw meat and poultry and their juices may contain harmful bacteria that can contaminate safely cooked food.

If you will be cooking away from home, find out if you will have access to a clean water source. If not, bring enough water and dish detergent to clean your utensils and platters.


Keep meat and poultry in the refrigerator until they are ready to be grilled. Make sure the grill is ready and has enough fuel to cook your food completely. If you are using charcoal, check that the coals are very hot before cooking food. They should have a light coating of gray ash. Coals can take 30 minutes or longer to get hot enough.

Don’t eat raw or under-cooked hamburgers made from ground meat or poultry. Harmful bacteria may be present. To kill bacteria, thoroughly cook meat and poultry. Grilling can make the outside of meat look done when the inside is not. The inside should not be pink! Use a meat thermometer to test for doneness.

FoodInternal Temperature
Beef, veal, and lamb steaks and roasts145°F
Pork (cuts)145°F
Ground Meat (beef, veal, pork, sausages, and lamb)160°F
Egg dishes160°F
Chicken, turkey, duck (whole, pieces, and ground)165°F

The best way to get the temperature of a meat patty is to insert the meat thermometer halfway into the side of the patty.

illustration showing a meat patty with meat thermometer inserted halfway into the side

Serving Grilled Food

Serve hot, grilled foods immediately. Put cooked food on clean plates. Don’t reuse plates that were used to hold raw meat or poultry. Perishable foods should be eaten within two hours, or one hour if the outside temperature is above 90°F. Remember to keep cold foods cold (below 40°F) and hot foods hot (over 140°F). Keep food out of the danger zone of 40°F to 140°F.

Cleaning Up

Clean the grill after each use. Also, refrigerate any leftovers promptly. Divide larger quantities into small, shallow containers for faster cooling.

Taking Leftovers Home

If your perishable food was kept on ice or refrigerated at all times, except when cooked and served, you should be able to save the leftovers. Be sure the foods are refrigerator-cold to the touch. If food is no longer cold, it may have dangerous bacteria. It does not hurt to use a thermometer to check the temperature of your leftovers. Keep them below 40°F at all times before cooking or serving. Keep leftovers iced and refrigerate them when you get home. Always remember: when in doubt, throw it out!


Smoking is a way of cooking without direct contact with fire. You can smoke meat in an ordinary covered grill — put a pan of water over the coals and under the meat. Or you can use a “smoker” that is made to smoke foods. Smoking is a slower method of cooking for less-tender meats. The internal temperature of the smoker should be set between 250°F and 300°F for safety. Use a meat thermometer to check that the internal temperature of the meat is safe.

Grilling and Cancer Risk

Some people are concerned about grilling and cancer risk. The American Cancer Society (ACS) suggests trimming off fat that could make the fire flame up and char the food. Pre-cooking in the microwave or oven lessens grilling time and reduces risks. The ACS also suggests

  • raising the cooking level of the grill so your food is farther from the heat,
  • not eating charred or burned portions of food, and
  • cleaning the grill well after cooking.

For more information about food safety, call USDA’s Meat and Poultry Hotline at 1.800.535.4555 or 1.888.MPHotline (1.888.674.6854), e-mail MPHotline.fsis@usda.gov, or contact your University of Maine Cooperative Extension county office.


“Barbeque and Food Safety,” Food Safety Information (United States Department of Agriculture, Food Safety and Inspection Service, 2007).

“Freezing and Food Safety,” Safe Food Handling ((United States Department of Agriculture, Food Safety and Inspection Service, 2010). http://www.fsis.usda.gov/factsheets/focus_on_freezing/index.asp

Information in this publication is provided purely for educational purposes. No responsibility is assumed for any problems associated with the use of products or services mentioned. No endorsement of products or companies is intended, nor is criticism of unnamed products or companies implied.

© 2001, 2011

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