AgriLife Extension experts offer tips on safe Memorial Day grilling, food safety

COLLEGE STATION – With Memorial Day weekend approaching, many Texans are preparing their grills for a family cookout, and to help ensure a safer, more trouble-free time, Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service experts are offering some sage advice.

Lots of Texans will fire up their grills and have family cookouts this weekend. Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service experts have  offered tips on how to make it a positively 'memorable' weekend by providing fire and food safety advice.  (Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service photo)

Lots of Texans will fire up their grills and have family cookouts this weekend. Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service experts have offered tips on how to make it a positively ‘memorable’ weekend by providing fire and food safety advice. (Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service photo)

“It’s extremely important that people take extra care if planning to grill outdoors, especially in open areas,” said Dr. Joyce Cavanagh, AgriLife Extension specialist in family development and resource management, College Station. “Three out of four households have an outdoor grill, and cookouts are a Memorial Day weekend tradition.”

Data from the National Fire Protection Association shows gas grills were involved in an annual average of 7,200 home fires from 2007-2011, while charcoal or other solid-fuel grills were involved in an annual average of 1,400 home fires. In 43 percent of home outdoor fires in which grills were involved, the fire started when a flammable or combustible gas or liquid caught fire.

Cavanagh said before making plans for a cookout in a public area, check to see if there’s a burn ban in effect in that area.

“It’s not only dangerous to ignore or defy a burn ban, but there can also be some pretty stiff fines for doing so,” she noted.

Some additional outdoor grilling fire safety tips offered by AgriLife Extension experts and the National Fire Protection Association include:

– Set up the grill on a concrete surface or on ground where grass and vegetation in the area are trimmed and where there are no dry leaves, brush, mulch piles or other combustibles nearby.
– Place the grill in an open area away from deck railings, eaves and overhanging branches or other potentially combustible surfaces.
– If using a gas grill, check for leaks and make sure hose connections are tight.
– Set the grill at least 10 feet away from your house or building, and do not grill in a garage or under a carport or other surface that might catch fire.
– Keep young children and pets at least 3 feet from the grill.
– Remove any grease or fat buildup from the grill and/or in the trays below the grill.
– Keep charcoal fluid out of the reach of children and away from heat sources.
– Never leave the grill unattended once the fire has been lit.
– Do not attempt to move a hot grill.
– Keep a multi-purpose fire extinguisher within reach.
– Use flame-retardant mitts and grilling tools with long handles instead of household forks or short-handled tongs.
– When finished grilling, let the coals completely cool before disposing, and use a metal container for disposal.
– If using a liquid propane grill, use extreme caution and always follow manufacturer recommendations for connecting or disconnecting the tank.

Along with fire safety, food safety is another important factor to consider when grilling, said Dr. Jenna Anding, AgriLife Extension program leader, food and nutrition, College Station.

“You don’t want to remember Memorial Day as the day you or someone in your family got sick from a foodborne illness,” Anding said. “To keep cookouts safe, it’s important to ensure a clean grilling workspace and safe food preparation.”

She said maintaining food quality and freshness by ensuring proper temperatures during its storage and when cooking are vital to food safety.

“Choose meat, poultry or seafood that is fresh and of high quality,” she said. “At the grocery store, select your meat last and get it home as soon as possible. If the trip from the grocery store to home is more than 30 minutes, take a cooler for refrigerated items.”

Anding said fresh poultry, fish, seafood or ground beef should be cooked or frozen within a day or two, and that steaks or pork chops should be cooked or frozen within four to five days.

“If your meat is frozen, the safest and best way to thaw it is by placing it in the refrigerator a day or two before you plan to cook it,” she added. “If you have to, you can thaw it in the microwave, but if you do, cook the food right away.”

Anding cautioned that if the microwave is used to thaw food, some foods may not thaw out evenly and other parts of the food may be partially cooked, so it’s still better to let them thaw out it in the fridge. Regardless, she added, never thaw meats at room temperature as this may increase the number of germs related to foodborne illness.

Anding said if refrigerated food is being transported to another location for cooking, it should be kept at 40 degrees or colder, using a cooler and ice or ice packs.

“And you should only take as much as you plan to cook and eat that day,” she said.

Anding said raw meat, poultry or seafood should be tightly wrapped or stored in a sealed bag or container and kept in a different cooler to reduce the risk of cross-contamination.

“Make sure your hands, the cooking area and all cooking utensils are clean to reduce the spread of germs to the food,” she said. “If you’re cooking away from home and not sure about a water source where you’re going, take your own water and paper towels or use antibacterial towelettes or hand sanitizer.”

Anding noted that unwashed utensils and platters can still contaminate food, even if you’ve maintained proper food storage, preparation and cooking standards.

“If you’ve placed raw meat or fish on a platter before grilling, do not use that same plate to serve the food unless it first can be cleaned with hot, soapy water.”

She said foods on a grill can brown quickly and look as though they are sufficiently cooked when they are not, so a food thermometer is the only way to ensure cooking to a safe internal temperature.

“Cook all poultry to 165 degrees, fully cooked meats like hot dogs to 165 degrees and hamburgers to 160 degrees. Beef, pork, lamb, veal steaks, chops and roasts should be cooked to at least 145 degrees. For safety, however, allow these foods to ‘rest’ for 3 minutes after removing them from the grill before serving.”

After cooking, Anding said, be sure to keep the food hot until it is served – at least 140 degrees — otherwise refrigerate it right away.

“Keep food covered and never let it sit out for more than two hours, and if the weather is 90 degrees or hotter, eat or store it within one hour,” she said. “We usually say ‘more than two is bad for you,’ but if it’s outside, that should be just one hour.”

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