Auburn professor: Safe food equals a safe Fourth

AUBURN UNIVERSITY—The Fourth of July is quickly approaching, and many Americans are making plans for a cookout with family and friends. To help ensure the Fourth is a safe and carefree holiday for all, Pat Curtis, director of the Food Systems Initiative at Auburn University, is offering tips and advice for grilling and food safety.

“The three main things to remember while preparing food or grilling are don’t cross-contaminate, keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold and cook food thoroughly,” Curtis said.

Don’t cross-contaminate

A mistake many people make while grilling is using the same plate and utensils when the meat and poultry is raw and afterward when it is cooked, without washing in between, said Curtis. Instead, after placing the raw meat on the grill, immediately wash the plate and utensil with soapy water or get a new plate for the cooked meats when ready. Also, if you touched the raw meat you should wash your hands for 20 seconds with soapy water.

Using the same plate and utensils for raw and cooked meat runs the risk of contaminating safely cooked food with the bacteria present in the raw meat and their juices, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“Use separate cutting boards when making something like kabobs,” said Curtis. “You do not want to cut raw meat and raw vegetables on the same board, or cross-contamination can become an issue, even if you plan to cook the vegetables after cutting them.”

According to the USDA, there are certain precautions to take when purchasing meat and poultry. At the store, select a package that is not torn, and make sure the contents are cold to the touch. If possible, place the package inside of a plastic bag so the juices do not make contact with other items in the cart. Also, make sure raw meat is the last item to be placed in the shopping cart, and plan to drive directly home and place the meat immediately in the refrigerator or freezer to preserve the freshness and slow the growth of bacteria.

If refrigerated, keep the temperature at 40 degrees or below, and use or freeze ground meats and poultry within one or two days, and beef, veal, pork and lamb steaks within five days. When thawing frozen meat, place in the refrigerator, Curtis said. Do not thaw the meat at room temperature.

Never leave raw meat or poultry out at room temperature for more than two hours, according to the USDA.

“The general time that any food is safe to sit out, inside or outside, is two hours,” said Curtis.

Keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold

Curtis said to use judgment when it comes to cold foods. She said to keep track of the time it actually comes out of the refrigerator to when it goes back in. This includes preparation time, such as placing the cold food into a different container or adding more ingredients.

However, cold foods must still be kept cold, and hot foods still must be kept hot, said Curtis. She said if placing refrigerated foods outside, put the bowl or plate of cold food on top of a bowl or plate of ice to ensure the food is chilled. Also, Curtis said not to place food in direct sunlight, but to make sure it is placed under some sort of cover, whether a tree, an awning or an umbrella.

If an ice chest is being used to keep the cold foods chilled, do not use the ice chilling the food in a drink. Even if the food is in a container inside the ice chest, the ice could still be contaminated. Have a separate and clean ice chest specifically for storing ice for drinks.

Cook food thoroughly

There is a risk of getting sick from bacteria, such as salmonella from chicken and E. coli from beef, if food is not cooked thoroughly or properly, even leftovers, Curtis said.

Meat and poultry should be cooked to a safe temperature to destroy any harmful bacteria, and the color of the meat and poultry is not a proper indicator of safety, according to the USDA. A food thermometer is the best way to determine if the meat or poultry is safe to consume.

Never partially cook or grill meat or poultry and wait to finish cooking later. Also, after cooking the meat or poultry, keep it hot until served, but do not keep meat over the fire so they continue to cook. Place the meat in a 200-degree oven to keep them hot, according to USDA.

“After a cookout, there are always leftovers. Leftovers can be safe to eat if they have not sat out for more than two hours, and if they are refrigerated and reheated properly,” Curtis said. “Always reheat food to 165 degrees before consuming.”

“The Fourth of July is a holiday for people to enjoy, so if everyone handles their food the proper way, it should be a fun and enjoyable weekend for everyone,” said Curtis.

Food safety tips

  • Keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold
  • Cook food thoroughly
  • Clean the plate and utensils used for raw meat before using for cooked meat
  • Use separate cutting boards for raw meat
  • Select a sealed and cold package of meat or poultry when purchasing
  • Keep meat or poultry away from other items in the shopping cart
  • Place raw meat or poultry immediately in the refrigerator or freezer
  • Keep refrigerator temperature 40 degrees or below
  • Use or freeze ground meats and poultry within one or two days, and beef, veal, pork and lamb steaks within five days
  • Thaw frozen meat in the refrigerator
  • Don’t leave raw meat or poultry out at room temperature for more than two hours
  • Don’t place food in direct sunlight
  • Don’t eat or use ice for drinks from an ice chest used to store food
  • Never partially cook meat and finish cooking later
  • Keep meat and poultry warm until ready to serve
  • Reheat leftovers to 165 degrees before consuming

(Written by Mary Reynolds Porter.)

Media Contacts:
Contact: Pat Curtis, College of Agriculture, (334) 844-6247 (,
Mike Clardy, Office of Communications and Marketing, (334) 844-9999 (