Playing it safe: Auburn experts offer food-safety tips for tailgating

By Karen Hunley

By Karen Hunley, Auburn University Food Safety Institute

Tens of thousands of Auburn students, alumni and fans will descend on The Plains this fall, not only for home football games but also for the beloved pregame tradition of tailgating. Tailgate parties are serious business in the Southeastern Conference, and a lot goes into ensuring that the food served is both delicious and safe to eat.

Bacteria that can cause foodborne illnesses can easily grow and multiply at outdoor picnics and barbecues, particularly on a warm day. Tailgate organizers should take precautions during each phase of their event—from preparing and traveling to serving and packing up leftovers—to help prevent foodbourne illnesses.

If you organize a tailgate gathering, here are some tips from the Auburn University Food Systems Institute, a center that promotes food safety practices that help protect sustainable, high-quality food systems.

Preparing and Traveling

If you’re planning to grill at your tailgate, pack raw meat, such as chicken and ground hamburger, in sealed containers, and, to prevent meat juices from contaminating other items, place it in the bottom of your insulated cooler. Add ice or frozen gel packs. Put perishable, ready-to-eat foods, like potato salad and sealed lunchmeat, on top of the meat and ice, and add more ice.

Pack separate utensils for preparing, for serving and for eating the food and a food thermometer to make sure meat is cooked thoroughly.

When you’re loading your tailgate-bound vehicle, always remember to pack a separate cooler to be used exclusively for ice for drinks.

On into the football season, as the weather cools off, chili and other hearty soups and stews also become popular tailgate fare. If you have a short drive, you can keep these hot foods hot by pouring boiling water into an insulated container, letting that stand a few minutes and then emptying the container and adding your steaming soup or chili. The food can stay hot—140 degrees Fahrenheit or above—for several hours, if the container stays closed.

If your drive to the tailgate is longer than an hour or so, chill the soup or chili in the refrigerator before packing it in your cooler and then reheating it onsite to 165 F.

Grilling and Serving

When you’re grilling, be aware that, while meat may look done on the outside, it may not have reached a safe internal temperature. Poultry should be cooked to a minimum 165 F and burgers to at least 160 F. Check the temperatures while the meat is still on the grill. The “Safe Minimum Internal Temperatures” chart has more details.

Take along separate plates and serving utensils for the cooked meat and ready-to-eat foods. You don’t want the same fork that’s been transferring burgers from the grill to go in the pasta salad bowl.

Winding Down

Once all the guests have served their plates, place the meats, dips and other perishable foods back in your cooler to keep bacteria from growing. You can always pull them back out if you need to.

One of the most important points the experts at the food systems institute make is this: Do NOT eat grilled meats and ready-to-eat foods that have been left out for more than two hours —or one hour, if the outside temperature is above 90 F. When in doubt, throw it out.

For the trip home, tightly seal safe-to-eat leftovers and pack them in your cooler, making sure there’s still plenty of ice.

You can find more on tailgating, including additional safety tips and tailgating history and fun facts at AUFSI's Tailgate Times website or by following the institute’s “Tailgate Times” page on Facebook.

The Auburn University Food Systems Institute, which operates under the auspices of the Alabama Agricultural Experiment Station, promotes food safety practices and supports research, teaching and training collaborations among Auburn faculty and through external partnerships with industry, government, consumers and other universities.

Safe Minimum Internal Temperatures* for Cooked Meat
All poultry - 160°F
Ground meats - 160°F
Beef, pork, lamb and veal steaks, roasts and chops - 145°F
Leftovers (reheating) - 165°F

*As measured with a food thermometer before removing meat from the heat source. For safety and quality, allow meat to rest at least three minutes before carving or consuming.

Source: USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service.

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