BBQ+A: Your Guide to a Food Safe Summer

July 2, 2015
Kristina Beaugh, MPH, and Tina Hanes, RD

Kristina Beaugh, MPH, is a member of the Food Safety Education Staff at the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Food Safety and Inspection Service. Tina Hanes, RD, assists with the USDA’s Meat and Poultry Hotline.

Everyone loves a good summertime cookout—especially on the Fourth of July. It’s a great time to have a little fun in the sun with friends and family. But do you know what else loves the hot weather? The bacteria that cause food poisoning.

If you or someone you are caring for is receiving or recovering from cancer treatment, foodborne illness can be severe or even deadly. So how can you protect yourself? Here are answers to some common questions to help you and your family stay food safe this summer. share on twitter 

Q: Why is food safety important for people with cancer and their caregivers?

A: Cancer treatments, like radiation therapy and chemotherapy, can decrease a person’s white blood cell count. White blood cells serve as the body’s main defense against infections. With a low white blood cell count, any infection, including foodborne illnesses, can become serious. For people with cancer, unsafe food handling can result in lengthy illnesses, hospitalizations, or even death.

Q: Why do more people get foodborne illnesses during the summer?

A: Bacteria love hot and humid weather. This is the type of environment in which they thrive. Additionally, during the summer, people like to be outside camping, going on picnics, or grilling, and all of these activities involve food. This gives harmful bacteria lots of opportunities to make people sick.

Q: When I’m grilling for my family and friends, I often have a lot of different items on the grill, like chicken, hot dogs, burgers, and ribs. How do I know when everything is finished cooking and is safe to eat?

A: The only way to know your meat has finished cooking and is safe to eat is to use a food thermometer. You can’t tell something is safe just by looking at it. The USDA recommends using the PRO method:

P—Place the thermometer into the thickest part of the meat or poultry. Wait 10 to 20 seconds for an accurate reading.

R—Read the temperature to make sure your food is safe.

  • Beef, pork, lamb, and veal (steaks, roasts, and chops): 145°F with a 3 minute rest time
  • Ground meats (like hamburger): 160°F
  • Whole poultry, poultry breasts, and ground poultry: 165°F
  • Hot dogs: Cook until steaming hot

O—Off the grill! Once the meat has reached its safe internal temperature, take it off the grill. Be sure to put the cooked food on a clean plate; not one that held raw meat. share on twitter 

Q: I like to have a lot of fruits and vegetables at my cookout. What steps should I take to handle produce safely?

A: Rinse fruits and vegetables under running water, even if you plan to peel them. For produce with a firm skin, like avocados or melons, scrub the surface with a brush. Washing produce before cutting or peeling it helps keep bacteria that may be on the surface from transferring to the part you will eat.

Q: On nice summer days, I like to eat outside on the patio and soak up the sun. How long can my food sit outside?

A: Perishable food should not sit out at room temperature for more than two hours. If you’re eating outside and the temperature is above 90°F, food should not sit out for more than an hour.

Q: For the Fourth of July, we have a lot of friends and family over for a BBQ, and everyone brings different side dishes. How should we keep these sides cold?

A: You can keep salads and other side dishes cold by putting the serving dish on a bed of ice. You can also serve a little at a time and keep the rest in a refrigerator or cooler.

Q: What if I have other questions?

A: If you have any questions, you can chat with a Food Safety Specialist by calling the USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline at 1-888-MPHotline (1-888-674-6854) or visiting AskKaren.gov.