Editor’s note: Children, pregnant women and older adults can develop serious and life-threatening illnesses from food poisoning. Holidays usually include these high-risk groups, making food safety even more important than usual.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) is urging everyone to be food safe as they cook out this Fourth of July to keep the celebration free from illness-causing bacteria.

“FSIS has a number of resources to help consumers prevent foodborne illnesses at home,” said Deputy Under Secretary for Food Safety Mindy Brashears. “When gathering to celebrate our Independence Day, we urge Americans to follow our key food safety recommendations to keep their family and friends safe.”

Millions of Americans suffer from foodborne illness each year, resulting in roughly 128,000 hospitalizations and 3,000 deaths, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But with key food safety steps easily integrated into your cookout plans, hosts can provide everyone with a great time this Fourth of July.

Getting Ready

  • The easiest way to stop the spread of bacteria around the kitchen is by cleaning food contact surfaces, cooking utensils and pots, and washing your hands. Before starting, make sure you wash your hands with soap and warm water for at least 20 seconds. Dry them with a clean towel or disposable paper towel.
  • Wash your hands immediately after handling meats and poultry, every time you touch them during food preparation. This is the best way to avoid cross-contamination of other foods, spice containers, or preparation surfaces.
  • Set your food serving table or counter with items that can help you keep cold foods cold and hot foods hot. This will help to keep perishable items out of the danger zone, which is 40 degrees F through 140 degrees F. This is the temperature range where pathogens can multiply very quickly and spread like wildfire.
Click to enlarge. Courtesy of the USDA

Cooking to the Safe Temperature

  • Regardless of individual’s tastes, it is important to ensure that all meat and poultry is cooked to safe minimum internal temperatures as measured by a food thermometer. Adequate levels of heat kill most foodborne pathogens. You cannot determine whether food is cooked throughly by looking at the color of the meat or poultry, or by checking whether their juices run clear. Checking with a food thermometer inserted into the thickest area of the meat or poultry is the only way to be safe.
    Be sure to avoid the danger zone (see graphic at right).

    • Beef, pork, lamb and veal, including steaks, roasts and chops should be cooked to 145 degrees F with a three-minute rest time after being removed from the heat;
    • Fish should be cooked to 145 degrees F;
    • Ground meats including beef, lamb, veal, pork, turkey burgers, etc., should be cooked to 160 degrees F because pathogens on the exterior are mixed throughout the food during the grinding process;
    • Whole poultry, poultry breasts and ground poultry: 165°F

Keeping Food Safe

  • If you plan to have a burger or hot dog toppings bar with items like mayo, sliced tomatoes or avocado, be sure to keep them cold by placing them on a tray of ice. Be sure to replenish the ice as needed.
  • Perishable food items should not be left outside for more than two hours if the temperature is at or below 90 degrees F, and only one hour if the temperature is at or above 90 degrees F.
  • Any leftovers should be refrigerated within 2 hours — 1 hour if temperatures are at or above 90 degrees F — of being served, indoors or out. If you are not sure how long food has been sitting out, throw it away immediately.

Need more food safety information? Call the USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline at 888-674-6854 Monday through Friday, from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. EDT, or email or chat at AskKaren.gov.

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