Memorial Day will soon be here.  Where I grew up, this meant greeting the sunshine and warm weather with the first barbecue of the season.  Here in Seattle, we still pull out the grill, but occasionally while donning wool, Gore-Tex, and an umbrella.  Safe food preparation is just as important, and perhaps more challenging in the outdoor grilling environment.  The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) provides some helpful tips (pdf).  

Safe barbecuing starts well before you fire up the grill. 

If you want to keep your family healthy, the commitment to safety has to start even before you walk out of the grocery store.  Separate raw meat and poultry from other items in the grocery cart–your first guard against cross-contamination between raw foods and ready to eat foods that will not be cooked.  After check-out, get your meat and poultry home and into the refrigerator.  FSIS says to refrigerate all perishable foods within 2 hours, 1 hour if the temperature outside has reached 90 F.  Any poultry or ground beef not to be used in the first 24 to 48 hours should be frozen.  Other meat should be frozen within 4 to 5 days.

If you do freeze meat, it must be thawed properly.  Thaw meat fully to ensure even cooking.   Meat can be slowly thawed in the refrigerator, or in sealed packages in cold water.   Meat defrosted in the microwave needs to go straight to the grill.  

Many people marinate their meat to flavor and tenderize before grilling.   Marinating should be done in the refrigerator, not on the counter.   If you are going to use the same marinade on the cooked food, a portion must be reserved that does NOT come in contact with raw meat.   Marinade that comes into contact with raw meat can be re-used after it has been boiled to destroy any harmful bacteria.

Were still not on the grill yet, but there is still more to think about. 

Meat that is transported to a grill off site should be kept in an insulated cooler that keeps temperatures below 40 F.  Minimize the amount of time the lid is off the cooler, and keep it out of direct sunlight.

Next up is a critical and often overlooked step–avoiding cross-contamination.  All utensils and platters should be clean.  The utensils and platters used for raw meat cannot be allowed to come in contact with cooked meat.  Cross-contamination in this manner may undo all of the precautions you have taken to this point.  Also, remember that everyone preparing the food should properly wash their hands first with warm soap and water for at least 20 seconds.  Also, any person who has been sick with vomiting or diarrhea within the past 24 hours should not be preparing foods.

Finally, it’s time to cook.  

Everyone has a reliable food thermometer that they use every time they cook meat, right?  Temperature is the proper way to judge whether meat is safe to eat.   Color is not–meat and poultry cooked on the grill often brown quickly on the outside.  (See Ground Beef: Safe Handling and Cooking)  Here is the FSIS-approved internal temperature list for various meats:

Poultry–whole, breasts, or ground: 165 F
Hamburgers, beef: 160 F
Beef, veal, lamb- medium rare: 145 F, Medium: 160 F
Pork:  160 F
Any reheated meat:  165 F

Never partially grill meat or poultry and finish cooking later.

Avoid Cross-Contamination

Remember the cross-contamination rules when removing fully cooked meat from the grill.   Place that properly cooked hamburger on the platter that held the raw burgers–and you have the defeated the whole purpose of proper cooking.


As with all perishable foods, leftovers should be promptly refrigerated.  (Within 2 hours, or within 1 hour in temperatures above 90 F.)  Any food left out more than 2 hours should be discarded.   

This may seem to be a lot to remember, but it really falls into a few basic categories:

1)    Avoid cross-contamination:  keep raw and cooked foods–and the items they come in contact with–separate.
2)    Store foods properly:  quickly refrigerate foods at proper temperatures.

3)    Cook thoroughly:  follow the guidelines and use a thermometer.

Have a safe and fun summer grilling season.