4 mistakes to avoid during Fourth of July cookout

It sounds delicious — burgers, hotdogs and chicken on the grill, with cool potato salad and coleslaw on the side.

A cookout is a great way to celebrate the Fourth of July — as long as nobody gets sick.

“We have four steps to food safety, and those are clean, separate, cook and chill,” said Kenneth King, spokesman with the U.S. Department of Agriculture Food Safety and Inspection Service.

Clean: Keeping your hands clean while handling food is the first step — and often overlooked, said King. In your kitchen, the guidance is to wash your hands often with warm, soapy water for 20 seconds before and after handling food.

“For everyone who might be out at parks over July 4, or maybe are camping or hiking, and don’t have access to running water, we always recommend to bring hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol,” King said.

Separate: Avoid cross-contamination.

“We want to make sure we’re keeping our raw meat and poultry separate from our fruits, vegetables and ready-to-eat foods,” he said. “Often, people make the mistake of putting the cooked burgers back on the same plate that had the raw burgers.”

A solution is to immediately throw out paper plates that have held raw meat, and avoid storing raw meat in the same cooler as produce and prepared food.

Cook: Patience may be required to ensure your hamburger is as healthy as it is appetizing.

“They may be sizzling on the grill. We’re hungry, and they’re looking really good. However they can still be quite raw,” said King, suggesting using a meat thermometer. “They need to be cooked to 160 degrees.”

Chicken should be grilled to an internal temperature of 165 degrees, he said.

Chill: Keep hot foods warm, and cold foods cool.

For example, for homemade potato salad, coleslaw, and macaroni salad: “If they’re sitting outside for a while, we really can’t tell. They’re still going to look fine on the outside, but the inside is what matters.”

King said the goal is to keep hot foods in a crockpot, or thermos, or heating dish, and to keep cold foods in a cooler, or, “Just make sure that it’s nestled on a tray under some ice.”

“The danger zone is when food is sitting in-between temperatures of 40 degrees to 140 degrees, since bacteria grow rapidly between those temperatures,” King said.

The USDA guidelines say leftovers should be refrigerated within two hours. If perishable food has been left out for more than two hours, it should be discarded.

“And with the Fourth of July, in temperatures 90 degrees and above, that two-hour window becomes a one-hour window,” King said.

Neal Augenstein

Neal Augenstein has been a reporter at WTOP since 1997. Through the years, Neal has covered many of the crimes and trials that have gripped the region. Neal's been pleased to receive awards over the years for hard news, feature reporting, use of sound and sports.

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