As Americans observe safe July 4th traditions, Virginia Tech food safety expert Joell Eifert has advice for those grilling at backyard cookouts.  Even as we move into a period of post-pandemic recovery, it remains important to practice good handwashing before preparing, handling and cooking food. To protect yourself, your family, and friends from foodborne illness during warm-weather months, safe food handling when eating outdoors is critical.  

Wash Your Hands

  • Food safety begins with proper hand cleaning — including outdoor settings.  Before you begin setting out your picnic feast, make sure hands and surfaces are clean.  If you are outside and don’t have access to running water, simply use a water jug, some soap, and paper towels.  Or, consider using moist disposable towelettes for cleaning your hands.  


Pack and Transport Food Safely:  Keep cold food cold.  Place cold food in a cooler with ice or frozen gel packs. Cold food should be stored at 40°F or below to prevent bacterial growth.  Meat, poultry, and seafood may be packed while still frozen so that they stay colder longer.  Coolers with white lids can cool better than those with dark lids since the white lid reflects light and heat rather than absorb.  Keep the cooler in the shade as much as possible.

  • Organize cooler contents.  Consider packing beverages in one cooler and perishable food in another.  That way, as picnickers open and reopen the beverage cooler to replenish their drinks, the perishable foods won’t be exposed to warm outdoor air temperatures.
  • Once at the picnic site, limit the number of times the cooler is opened as much as you can.  This helps to keep the contents cold longer.
  • Don’t cross-contaminate.  Be sure to keep raw meat, poultry, and seafood securely wrapped and separated from other foods. This keeps their juices from contaminating prepared/cooked foods or foods that will be eaten raw, such as fruits and vegetables.
  • Clean your produce.  Rinse fresh fruits and vegetables under running tap water before packing them in the cooler - including those with skins and rinds that are not eaten.  Rub firm-skinned fruits and vegetables under running tap water or scrub with a clean vegetable brush while rinsing with running tap water.  Dry fruits and vegetables with a clean cloth towel or paper towel before packing.


Follow Safe Grilling Tips:  Grilling and picnicking often go hand-in-hand.  And just as with cooking indoors, there are important guidelines that should be followed to ensure that your grilled food reaches the table safely.

  • Marinate safely.  Marinate foods in the refrigerator - never on the kitchen counter or outdoors. In addition, if you plan to use some of the marinade as a sauce on the cooked food, reserve a portion separately before adding the raw meat, poultry, or seafood.  Don’t reuse marinade that has touched raw meat or poultry.
  • Cook food thoroughly.  When it’s time to cook the food, have your food thermometer ready. Always use it to be sure your food is cooked thoroughly.  

·        Whole steaks, roasts, pork and fish:  145°F internal temperature

·        Ground meat:  160°F

·        Poultry (ground or whole):  165°F

  • Grilled food can be kept hot until served by moving it to the side of the grill rack, just away from the coals.  This keeps it hot but prevents overcooking.
  • Don't reuse platters or utensils that held raw meat, poultry or seafood for serving unless they have been washed first in hot, soapy water.  Using the same platter or utensils that previously held raw meat, poultry, or seafood allows bacteria from the raw food’s juices to spread to the cooked food.  Instead, have a clean platter and utensils ready at grill-side to serve your food.


Serving Picnic Food: Keep it COLD / HOT:  Keeping food at proper temperatures - indoor and out - is critical in preventing the growth of foodborne bacteria. The key is to never let your picnic food remain in the "Danger Zone" - between 40° F and 140° F - for more than 2 hours, or 1 hour if outdoor temperatures are above 90° F. This is when bacteria in food can multiply rapidly, and lead to foodborne illness.

  • Cold perishable food should be kept in the cooler at 40° F or below until serving time. 
  • Once you've served it, it should not sit out for longer than 2 hours, or 1 hour if the outdoor temperature is above 90° F. 
  • Cold foods like chicken salad and desserts in individual serving dishes can be placed directly on ice on your picnic table, or in a shallow container set in a deep pan filled with ice.  Drain off water as ice melts and replace ice frequently.
  • Hot food should be kept hot, at or above 140° F.  Wrap it well and place it in an insulated container until serving.  Just as with cold food - these foods should not sit out for more than 2 hours, or 1 hour in temperatures above 90° F.  If food is left out longer, throw it away to be safe.


Joell Eifert is director of the Food Innovations Program in the department of Food Science and Technology at Virginia Tech.

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