The Co-op’s Food-Safety Guide to Summer

Foodborne illness is no picnic. (We had to say it.)

Summer is the time when foodborne illnesses are more common, and we need to take extra precautions to keep bacteria under control.

We get a lot of questions at the Co-op about food safety during the summer BBQ season. Here’s a simple list of tips so you can have your picnic and safely eat it, too.

Wash your hands

Dirty hands are one of the most common ways to contaminate food, yet handwashing is one of the easiest things we can do to protect ourselves and our families. Wash your hands before you eat or handle foods and after changing diapers, petting the dog, or going to the bathroom. Always wash your hands thoroughly before and after handling raw meat or poultry. Outside without a water source? Bring along hand wipes or gels.

Wash your food

Fruits and vegetables need to be cleaned as well. After all, they’re handled by a number of individuals between harvest and home and exposed to all sorts of possible contaminants. Rinse them thoroughly with fresh water before eating, and be sure to reach the folds and stems of leafy greens.

Wash your tools

Wash utensils, cutting boards, dishes, and surfaces with soap and water, especially after contact with raw meat or poultry. Never let raw meat or poultry come in contact with other foods. Use soapy paper towels rather than sponges or rags to clean up meat juices; then promptly throw them away. Don’t let raw food juices drip on other foods while cooking on the grill, and keep plates and utensils that have touched raw meat, poultry, seafood, or marinades from touching cooked foods. Never reuse marinade that has held raw meat, chicken, or seafood as a sauce at the table unless you bring it to a boil first.

Keep ‘em cool

Store perishables in a cooler with ice on top of the food, as well as underneath. Bring one cooler for drinks (you’ll open it more often) and another to store foods like salads, cooked items, and dairy products. Keep raw meat and poultry separate from other foods in tightly sealed plastic bags, plastic containers, or their own small cooler. Keep foods in the cooler until the last minute and return leftovers as soon as possible after you have eaten.

Cook ‘em through

Ground beef or other meats used to make hamburgers can be very risky if not handled properly because they are ground and mixed, bringing surface bacteria to the inside. Unlike a steak that has its bacteria on the outside where they are killed upon searing, a hamburger needs to be cooked until the meat in the middle is done. Remember that the time needed to cook meat properly on a grill may be different from that needed on the stove. Use a meat thermometer to be sure or bring some easy, disposable “T-sticks” to test for the proper internal temperature of the meat of your choice. Cook hot dogs until hot all the way through, and make sure that chicken is not pink in the middle. Never partially precook meats or poultry to “finish off” later—bacteria will grow faster.

Watch the time

Don’t let your food sit out for hours. Two hours at room temperature is considered safe; one hour is the limit on very hot days.

When in doubt, throw it out

If you think a food may have been contaminated, improperly cooked, or left out too long, throw it away. No matter what you think the cost of the discarded food might be, the cost of foodborne illness can be much higher. 

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Ken Davis

Ken Davis is the Co-op's senior copywriter. Email him at