Days are getting warmer, baseball season is in full swing, and Memorial Day is here — all signs that the summer cookout season is nearly upon us. As you welcome summer at your Memorial Day weekend barbecue this year, USDA reminds you that safe grilling practices are the key to making your cookout a big hit with your guests.

“We want Americans to know that simple food safety steps can make cookouts and picnics worry-free for hosts,” said USDA Under Secretary for Food Safety Dr. Elisabeth Hagen. “A food thermometer and our virtual food safety representative, Ask Karen, may be the most important ingredients for families and friends hosting events throughout the year, including fun, safe summer cookouts over Memorial Day Weekend.”

The experts at the USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline have broken down safe cooking and handling practices into four simple steps: Clean, Separate, Cook, and Chill. To Be Food Safe this summer, round these grilling bases and your barbecue is sure to be a home run.

First base: Clean

First things first – -make sure you start with clean surfaces and clean hands. Be sure that you and your guests wash your hands before preparing or handling food. Hands should be washed with soap and warm water for 20 seconds before and after handling food. Equally important are the surfaces that come in contact with raw and cooked foods — make sure they are clean before you start and are washed frequently.

Second base: Separate

Raw meats and poultry should be prepared separately from vegetables and cooked foods. As you chop meats and veggies, be sure to use separate cutting boards. Juices from raw meats can contain harmful bacteria that could spread to raw veggies and already cooked foods.

Third base: Cook

Never begin grilling without your most important tool–a food thermometer. Color is not a reliable indicator of doneness. Meat and poultry cooked on a grill often brown quickly and may appear done on the outside, but still may not have reached a safe minimum internal temperature to kill any harmful bacteria. Pork, lamb, veal, and whole cuts of beef should be cooked to 145 °F as measured by a food thermometer placed in the thickest part of the meat, followed by a three-minute rest time before carving or consuming. Hamburgers and other ground beef should reach 160 °F. All poultry should reach a minimum temperature of 165 °F. Fish should be cooked to 145 °F. Fully cooked meats like hot dogs should be grilled to 165 °F or until steaming hot.

As you take the cooked meats off the grill, be sure to place them on a clean platter, not on the dish that held them when they were raw. The juices left on the plate from raw meat can spread bacteria to safely cooked food.

If you prefer to prepare meats using a smoker, the temperature in the smoker should be maintained between 225 °F and 300 °F for safety. Be sure to use your food thermometer to be certain the food has reached a safe minimum internal temperature.

Home Plate: Chill

Keeping food at a safe temperature can be a concern at outdoor picnics and cookouts. Too often, food is prepared and left to sit out while guests munch over the course of several hours. Bacteria grow most rapidly between 40 °F and 140 °F, so perishable food should never sit out for more than two hours. If the temperature is over 90 °F–which is common in the summer–food shouldn’t sit out more than one hour. Refrigerate or freeze leftovers promptly and discard any food that has been out too long.

Think of your hot and cold foods like your starting pitcher–after two hours, they’ve gone the distance and are tired. If it’s a particularly hot day, they’re going to be ready to chill out a bit sooner.

It’s important to keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold. Hot foods can be kept hot on the grill and cold foods can be kept chilled with ice packs or ice sources in a cooler.

Home run! You’ve circled the bases of safe grilling!

One of the best resources available before you plan a summer cookout is USDA’s virtual representative, Ask Karen, a feature that allows you to ask food safety-related questions 24 hours a day. Visit Ask Karen at or call USDA’s Meat and Poultry Hotline at 1-888-MPHotline (1-888-674-6854). Recorded messages are available 24 hours a day and the Hotline is staffed with food safety experts, Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Eastern Time.

Ask Karen is available as an app for your iPad, iPhone, or Android mobile device, so you can take her with you to the grocery store, to the barbecue grill, or wherever you may have food safety questions. Go to on your mobile device’s browser, or download the app for free from the Android and iTunes app stores. In portable format and available 24/7, mobile Ask Karen is your food safety base coach all season long!


“Begin the Summertime Grilling Season with a Food Safety Home Run” was first published May 26, 2011 on the USDA website.