It’s tailgating time, but be sure to keep food safety in mind
Are you ready for some football? College football season has begun and that means thousands of Alabamians will be tailgating before, after and even in their own backyard as they watch the game from TV screens at home.
Although tailgating traditions vary among schools and regions, they all include food. The heat in the Southeast sometimes dictates the food selections for tailgating. During the early part of football season, while temperatures are still quite warm, grilled hot dogs and hamburgers are always a favorite, as are fried chicken, potato salad and baked beans served with your favorite cold beverage.
As temperatures cool down, soups, chili and stews gain more attention, along with hot chocolate and coffee.
Tailgating Food Safety
No matter what the food, safety should always be a priority, said Rebeca Catalena, the Food Safety and Quality regional extension agent based in Mobile.
Pack food directly from the refrigerator to the ice chest. Catalena, also advises using two coolers for the foods you intend to bring — one for snacks and beverages that will be consumed along the way, the other for meats and other perishable items that will be consumed after arrival. Keep all cold foods below 40 degrees F. The less the perishable food container is opened along the way, the less likely the items inside will begin turning warm.
Check ice as time passes and pour out standing water. Ice sometimes may need to be replaced during long trips to ensure the food remains cold. This is especially true on warm days with temperatures exceeding 85 degrees F when food is packed in the trunk. “One common mistake among tailgaters is forgetting how hot a car trunk can be this time of year,” Catalena said.
Travelers who don’t want to bother with these kinds of precautions should consider bringing along less perishable foods. Good choices include fresh fruits, hard cheese, canned meats or fish, breads and crackers. Peanut butter and jelly also work well, she said. The same goes for most cakes and pies.
Compared with raw meat, luncheon meats are a safe bet, although these also should remain cold throughout the trip. Tailgaters, who insist on bringing along raw meats or seafood for grilling before the game, should pack them in the bottom of an ice chest. If possible, the chests should be packed to capacity.
Keep up with how long perishable food is left out. Perishable foods should not be above 40 degrees for more than two hours.
“Sometimes people think just because food has been cooked, it cannot spoil,” says Catelena. Bacteria can grow in foods both before and after the cooking process. Foodborne illness is always a possibility when the food’s temperature is between 40 degrees F and 140 degrees F for more than two hours.
About 7 million Americans suffer from food poisoning each year. About 85 percent of those cases could be avoided with proper handling.
Proper Handling Critical
Preparing food at home can save time and work at the tailgating site, but some last-minute mixing can improve food safety. Meats can be partially precooked, then quickly refrigerated, transported in an ice chest and cooked completely on a grill at the tailgate site. Some foods, such as chicken or sausage, can be boiled for a short time (five to eight minutes).
Improper handling of cooking utensils can also encourage foodborne illness. For example, cutting raw meat with a knife and then using the same knife to cut lettuce or fresh vegetables without thoroughly washing the knife poses a risk. Bacteria from the meat are transferred to the vegetables by the knife.
The transfer of bacteria also occurs when the same unwashed plate or platter is used to carry meat back and forth to the grill. Bacteria is transferred to the cooked meat as it is placed on that plate and brought to the table. Other tools of contamination can be the countertop, the cutting board, the sink or hand towels.
To avoid cross-contamination, always clean utensils and hands with hot, soapy water. Two teaspoons of unscented bleach mixed with a gallon of rinse water adds extra assurance of sterilization of utensils. Scrub hands together with soap for 20 seconds instead of just swiping them under running water. Clean between the fingers and under the nails.
Cooking foods to the proper temperature is another way to ensure safety. Don’t judge the doneness of meat by its color. Beef cooked to a grayish shade does not mean the middle has reached 160 degrees F, which is the recommended temperature for ground meat. Poultry needs to reach 165 degrees F to be thoroughly cooked.
All hot foods placed in a cooler shortly after preparation should maintain safe temperature for about 30 minutes. Always monitor the temperature with a thermometer.
Catalena said that some foodborne illnesses take 4 hours to 50 days before a person becomes sick. It is not a pleasant experience and, with just a few simple precautions, can be avoided.
Good tailgaters clean up properly after they have eaten. They place all paper, cans, bottles, discarded food and any other trash in a large trash bag and close it tightly. Then place the trash bag in a dumpster before leaving the tailgating site.
Remember to have fun, support your favorite team and keep food safe. For more information, visit Alabama Extension’s Food Safety website.