Memorial Day kicks off summer grilling season. Follow these tips to avoid food illnesses

Cookout safety needs to be part of the plan this Memorial Day weekend with a massive amount of travelers expected to hit the road, many headed to holiday gatherings with family and friends.

The holiday, on Monday, May 27, is a day to honor the men and women who died serving in the nation's military. It also kicks off the outdoor grilling season and marks the unofficial start of summer – OK, the season actually starts June 20.

Food safety needs to be atop the menu because millions get sick from foodborne illnesses during the summer. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates 48 million people are sickened annually by foodborne illnesses, with 128,000 hospitalized, and 3,000 dying.

“The bacteria that cause foodborne illness love the summertime as much as we do because they thrive and multiply quickly in warmer temperatures. This causes illnesses to spike during the summer,” said Dr. Emilio Esteban, under secretary for food safety for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, in a press release about summer food safety tips ahead of Memorial Day.

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Before you light the grill

Food safety measures should be taken even before it's time for your cookout. Here's some tips from the USDA's Food Safety Inspection Service.

  • Refrigerate: Make sure to place raw meat or poultry in the refrigerator or freezer within two hours of buying it at the grocery store, or one hour if it's above 90 degrees Fahrenheit outside.

  • Thaw: Ideally, defrost meat and poultry in the refrigerator, but you can thaw sealed packages in cold water, the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service says. If you defrost using the microwave, put the food on the grill right away.

  • Marinate: No matter what marinade you use, marinate your food in the refrigerator. (Note: Don't thaw or marinate meat, poultry, or seafood on the counter.) And dispose of your marinade after it has been used with raw meat. Do not reuse it.

Black portable grill in the grass
Black portable grill in the grass

Proper cooking temperatures for grilling meats

Meats must be cooked to a certain internal temperature to make sure you kill bacteria such as E. coli, which has been in the news lately for recalls of ground beef and, separately, of walnuts. E. coli infection can cause dehydration, bloody diarrhea and abdominal cramps three to four days after exposure – and potentially kidney failure in children under 5 years old and in older adults, the CDC says.

Use a food thermometer to make sure food has been cooked to the proper temperature by placing the thermometer in the thickest part of the meat and reading the temperature after 10 to 20 seconds.

  • All poultry should hit a minimum temperature of 165° Fahrenheit, says the USDA's FSIS.

  • Burgers made of ground beef, pork, veal or lamb should reach 160° F. All cuts of pork should also reach 160° F.

  • Steaks, roasts and other whole cuts of meat should be cooked to at least 145°F (62.6˚C) and allow to rest for three minutes after removal from the grill.

  • For fish, cook to 145°F or until the flesh is opaque and separates easily with a fork, according to safe cooking temperature charts from the CDC and USDA.

Don't reuse utensils or plates when cooking and transferring foods from grill

To prevent cross-contamination of germs, use one cutting board or plate for raw meat, poultry, and seafood and a separate one for produce, bread, and other foods that won't be cooked, the CDC suggests.

Raw chicken doesn't need to be washed first, because washing may spread germs to your sink, counter and other foods, possibly making you sick.

Plates, platters and utensils used to put meat on the grill need to go into the kitchen for washing. Wash your counter, too. That prevents cross-contamination from raw meat to cooked meat.

Wait, you still don't wash your hands after prepping food for the grill?

Many folks involved in cooking don't wash their hands properly, or at all – or use food thermometers – found a 2022 report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Anytime you touch raw meat, seafood or poultry, eggs or flour, you should wash your hands before touching anything else – other foods or your smartphone, for instance.

That's because bacteria can live on surfaces for 72 hours, said Meredith Carothers, food safety expert with the USDA's Meat & Poultry Hotline, in a public service announcement. "It's crazy what your hands can move around," she said.

Want to wash your hands correctly? Here's how, according to the CDC:

  • Wet your hands with clean, running water.

  • Apply soap, then scrub your hands for at least 20 seconds. Sing "Happy Birthday" twice, or any one of these other songs to know you've met the standard.

  • Rinse your hands well.

  • Dry your hands with a clean towel.

  • If you can't wash your hands, use a hand sanitizer made with at least 60% alcohol.

Here's how long food can sit out

Hot or cold food should not sit out for longer than two hours, or one hour if it's hotter than 90° F outside, the CDC says.

Cold food can be kept on ice before and even during serving. Warm food should be kept at or above 140°, so you may need to keep it insulated until served.

Any food sitting out beyond two hours, should be thrown away. Small portions of warm food can be put directly into the refrigerator.

“As we all spend more time outside, it is important to remember these food safety steps to keep your friends and family safe," the USDA's Esteban said.

Follow Mike Snider on X and Threads: @mikesnider & mikegsnider.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: How to grill chicken, steak or burgers and prevent food-borne illness