AgriLife Extension experts offer tips on Labor Day grilling, food safety

COLLEGE STATION – With Labor Day weekend a popular time for cookouts and persistent drought conditions continuing throughout most of the state, Texas AgriLife Extension Service experts have been advising additional caution about fire and food safety.

“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 in College Station. “Three out of four households have an outdoor grill, and cookouts are a huge Labor Day weekend tradition. We’re trying to get people to be more aware and take added precautions when grilling at home or away.”

With Labor Day approaching, Texas AgriLife Extension Service family and consumer science experts are asking Texans to be more aware of both fire and food safety, as well as offering tips on safer outdoor cooking. (Texas AgriLife Extension Service photo)

Cavanagh also suggests before making plans for a cookout in a public area that people check to see if a burn ban may be in effect in their area.

“If you plan to do a family cookout at a park or during a camping trip or such, check to see if there’s a ban in effect so you don’t get there only to find out you aren’t allowed to grill,” she said. “Plus, there can be some stiff fines for defying a burn ban.”

The National Fire Protection Association estimates gas and charcoal grills cause 4,200 outdoor fires and 1,500 structure fires annually in or on residential properties, resulting in yearly property losses of about $30 million.

Some outdoor grilling fire safety tips offered by AgriLife Extension experts, the National Fire Protection Association and others are:

– 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 in the vicinity.
– 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 three 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 relatively easy 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 or cooking outdoors, said Dr. Jenna Anding, AgriLife Extension program leader, food and nutrition, College Station.

“You don’t want to remember Labor 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.

“You need to begin by choosing meat, poultry or seafood that’s 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 your home is more than a half-hour, take a cooler for your refrigerated items.”

Anding said 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.

“Also, the safest way to thaw meat or poultry is by placing it in the refrigerator a day or two before you plan to cook it,” she added.  “You can also thaw in the microwave, but if you do, cook the food right away; don’t let it sit. However, 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 what you plan to cook and eat that day.”

She also said raw meat, poultry or seafood should be tightly wrapped or stored in a sealed bag or container, and kept in a different cooler than other foods.

“This will reduce the risk of cross-contamination,” she explained.

Make sure hands, cooking area and cooking utensils are clean to reduce the spread of germs to the food, she noted.

“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 anti-bacterial towelettes or hand sanitizer,” she said.

Anding said be sure to wash hands before and after touching raw meat, poultry or seafood, making sure food preparation surfaces, cutting boards and grilling utensils, and serving platters are washed and sanitized.

“Unwashed utensils and platters can still contaminate food, even if you’ve maintained proper food storage, preparation, and cooking standards,” she said. “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 can be cleaned with hot, soapy water first.”

Anding 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 foods have been cooked 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, and 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, she added, be sure to keep the food hot until it is served – at least 140 degrees — otherwise, eat or 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 when it’s this hot outside, that should be just one hour.”

Anding said more information on outdoor cooking safety may be obtained by contacting the local county AgriLife Extension agent for family and consumer sciences or reading the related U.S. Department of Agriculture fact sheet on safe food handling, which can be found at http://www.fsis.usda.gov/Fact_Sheets/Barbecue_Food_Safety/.

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