CLEMSON — Clemson food safety experts warn tailgaters: don’t let food-related microorganisms crash your party.

Clemson food safety experts warn tailgaters to keep food safety in mind when tailgating this football season.

Clemson food safety experts warn tailgaters to keep food safety in mind when tailgating this football season.
Image Credit: Clemson University

Grilled or smoked meats adorn many a tailgate table, with poultry being high on the list of desired delectables. Common pathogens (microbes that make us ill) found in poultry include salmonella, listeria and Campylobacter species. These pathogens can be found lurking in raw or undercooked meats as well as meat that has entered the temperature danger zone, between 40 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit. Consumption of food containing these pathogens can result in foodborne illnesses. Symptoms include: abdominal pain, blurred vision, chills, dehydration, diarrhea, headaches, vomiting and others.

“Serving thoroughly cooked food is one way to ward off foodborne illnesses,” said Adair Hoover, Clemson food safety specialist. “Before firing up the grill, tailgaters should have thermometers on hand to check the temperature of the meat to be sure it is thoroughly cooked before it is eaten.”

Cook all poultry to 165 degrees Fahrenheit or higher. If a smoker is used, the temperature in the smoker should be maintained at 250 degrees to 300 degrees Fahrenheit for all meats. Cooking time depends on several factors, including type and thickness of meats.

“When checking the temperature of meats cooked on a grill, insert the thermometer into the center of the thickest part, away from bone, fat and gristle,” Hoover said. “Make sure the thermometer is not touching the grill or pan because this can give a false reading.”

Reports from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) show poultry accounts for nearly half of food illnesses that affect about 48 million Americans each year. Many of these illnesses could have been prevented had safe food handling practices been used. Anyone can get a foodborne illness, but some people are more likely to get them than others, including infants and children, pregnant women and their fetuses, older adults and people with weakened immune systems.

Poultry isn’t the only meat where pathogens live. Hoover advises beef and pork eaters to beware of pathogens as well. E. coli, salmonella, listeria and parasites, such as protozoa, roundworms and tapeworms are common pathogens found in beef and pork. Thoroughly cook all raw meat.

After thoroughly cooking meat, tailgaters should allow for the meat to “rest” before it is eaten. “Rest time” is the amount of time the product remains at the final temperature after it has been removed from a grill, oven or other heat source. During the three minutes after meat is removed from the heat source, its temperature remains constant or continues to rise, which destroys harmful bacteria.

In addition to temperature requirements, there also are rules in the tailgate cooking playbook for marinating meats. Kimberly Baker, Clemson Extension food safety program coordinator, said steps should be taken to ensure safe marinating.

“Always marinate food in a refrigerator and not on a counter,” Baker said. “It is also recommended people not reuse marinade that has come in contact with raw foods on cooked foods. If someone wants to use the same marinade or sauce after the food has been cooked, they should reserve some of it before it comes contact with raw foods.”

Beware of cross-contamination

Cross-contamination is another provider of foodborne illnesses. Marie Hegler, Clemson Extension area food safety and nutrition agent, said clean hands and utensils can help prevent cross-contamination.

“Bacteria can be spread from hands or utensils,” Helger said. “People should wash their hands before handling food and make sure all utensils are clean. Also, people should not use the same utensils for raw meat and cooked meat, or raw meat and vegetables without first thoroughly cleaning the utensils.”

Hegler also advises people to keep raw meat cold and not let it enter the temperature danger zone.

“With the hot weather like we’re having now, temperatures can reach into the 90s,” Hegler said. “This is a prime time for bacteria to grow on food. Bacteria can multiply and grow and have a tailgate party on your food.”

Hegler also advises people to pack raw meat in one cooler and other foods, such as pasta salads, in separate coolers to prevent cross-contamination. It’s also a good idea to have a few thermometers on hand to make sure the coolers remain cool enough to protect the food. Once food has been cooked, it should be eaten, Hegler said. Two hours is the total time allowed for food to be left out before eaten, she said. Food left out for more than two hours should be thrown away.

Don’t double dip

In addition to meats and other foods, many tailgate parties also feature chips and dip as appetizers. Julie Northcutt, program leader for the Clemson Extension Food Safety and Nutrition Team, advises people eating chips and dip to use their own containers to prevent the spread of germs caused by “double dipping” chips.

“Double dipping is when a person puts a chip in dip, takes a bite of the chip and then puts the chip back in the dip to get more,” Northcutt said. “There is a lot of bacteria in each person’s mouth that can be transferred by double dipping.”

Northcutt spoke of fellow researcher Paul Dawson’s findings related to double dipping. Dawson’s Creative Inquiry team looked at dips made from salsas, cheeses and chocolates.

“In all cases, bacteria were transferred back to the dips,” Northcutt said. “More bacteria were found to be transferred when the dip was a salsa, but when the dip sat around for an hour or two, the bacteria remained longer in the chocolate and cheese dips. Sharing dips with other people is always a bad idea. You always have that person who is going to double dip. But if you can provide everyone with their own separate container for dips, you don’t have to worry about someone double dipping.”

The same goes for drinking from the same container as someone else, Northcutt said. Germs are spread just as easily when people drink from the same containers as when they dip chips or crackers in the same containers. Tailgaters also should be cautious about drinking games such as beer pong. A study done by Dawson’s students tested ping pong balls used in games during a homecoming weekend a few years ago and high levels of bacteria were found on balls collected from these games. In the same study the bacteria found on the balls were transferred to the beer. Microorganisms ending up in the drink when playing beer pong can come from a fellow players hands or from any surface that the ball contacts during the game.

While this information may seem frightening to some, these Clemson food safety experts said tailgating can be fun as long as everyone remembers these food safety basics:

  • Clean – Wash hands and surfaces often.
  • Separate – Don’t cross-contaminate.
  • Cook – Always cook food to proper temperatures and check with a food thermometer before eating.
  • Chill – Promptly refrigerate all uneaten foods.
  • When in doubt, throw it out.