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Tailgating Food Safety

Posted in Food Safety on October 11, 2018

Regular play in the NFL started up the first Thursday of September. That means many things to many people: crisp air, ochre leaves, prodigious excuses to eat more chips and dip, Sundays and Monday nights parked in front of the television, and (if you’re lucky enough to make it to a game), the red-blooded American tradition of the tailgate. Tailgating Food Safety is our topic today!

Tailgating isn’t unique to football, but football is where tailgating got its start, and there’s a unique connection between the two. The parking-lot barbecues and cornhole competitions are more than just a prelude or denouement to a game: they’re a place for family, friends, and fans to get together and socialize. They’re a 21st-century public square.

It’s not uncommon to see people haul a camping grill to a tailgate and set up a small grilling operation in their parking spot. Other snacks, along with beverages both alcoholic and not, are also regular features of the tailgate. That means that food is being prepared and eaten, which in turn means that you might have a care beyond how well your team does; you have to worry about tailgates and food safety. Well, you don’t have to, per say, but as a reader of this blog you’re probably got some interest in how to reduce foodborne illness so that game day isn’t sullied with a hurried bathroom sortie or three. To help you, we’ve prepared this list of food safety tips for tailgating:

  • Come prepared: You can’t practice proper food safety at a tailgate if you don’t have proper equipment. Most of the things needed for a tailgate should be pretty obvious: you’ll want utensils for cooking and for eating, disposable or reusable plates and cups to eat and drink from, and a cooler filled with ice or ice packs. Those are the basics. You’ll want to bring a few other things as well: clean utensils for the prep and handling of meat are essential, as are well-insulated tupperware in which to transport food that needs to be kept hot or cold (more on that down below). You’ll also want to bring a meat thermometer to measure food temperature, hand sanitizer for anyone who will be handling the foods, and some liquid soap to clean utensils if you need to.
  • Prep wisely: There are some dos and donts that you should be aware of before you head down to a tailgate. You’ll want to defrost any meat that you’re planning on cooking in the refrigerator or cooler before you arrive at the tailgate. If you’re marinating meat before you bring it to the cookout, you’ll want to do that in the fridge beforehand as well. Should you plan to use some of that marinade to juice up the meat while it’s grilling, don’t use the same stuff that you let the meat sit in: set aside a separate, smaller container with marinade that hasn’t yet been in contact with the raw meat. Also, don’t pre-cook anything to try and speed up the grilling process. Pre-cooking meat raises it to a temperature where bacteria can grow and spread across the surface, so you’ll want to keep meat a temperature below 40 degrees fahrenheit up until the point that you start
    cooking it.
  • Pack properly: Firstly, make sure that your cooler has enough ice or cold packs to keep the inside at a temperature of 40 degrees or lower until you’re ready to eat whatever’s inside (you may be able to check this using the meat thermometer that you packed up at the top, but the USDA recommends packing a separate appliance thermometer to be sure). You’ll want to securely wrap and pack any raw meat to make sure that its juices don’t come into contact with other meats or food that’s already ready to eat. When you’re packing foods that need to be kept hot or cold, do so with insulated packaging. We recommend a thermos for hot soups or chilis that you’ve prepared beforehand and would like to serve hot. It’s important to keep these foods warm from the point that they’re done cooking to the point that you eat them in order to deny bacteria the opportunity to spread. That means 140 degrees or warmer.


  • Grill safely: Once you get around to grilling, you’ll want to make sure that you have dedicated utensils for handling meat that hasn’t been entirely cooked. Keep meats segregated on your grilling surface from other foods, like spring onions or bell peppers, and take further care to make sure that different kinds of meat aren’t touching. This is when you get the chance to bust out your meat thermometer. Most meats need to be cooked to an internal temperature of 160 degrees fahrenheit to ensure that any bacteria inside have been killed off. The exception to this are red meats like beef, pork, and lamb, which should be safe to eat if they’re heated to 145 degrees.
  • Serve promptly: Once food’s been cooked, bacteria can start to grow on it within a few hours of it starting to cool down. You’ll want anything from the grill to be eaten promptly. Don’t trifle with foods that have been left out to cool for more than two hours, as extended time sitting out opens up a window of temperature and time that allows pathogens like salmonella or E. coli to grow. While it’s good to eat promptly after the food’s been served, it’s key that you remember to wash your hands: don’t skip this step. That means warm soapy water for at least two minutes, with special attention paid to the spaces between the fingers and the backs of the hands.
Our Friends at FoodSafety.Gov Say

According to, planning is your defender for Tailgating Food Safety. “Planning is the key to keeping your food safe during a tailgate, so get your gear ready now. Do you have enough coolers and all the tools you need to cook? In addition to a grill and fuel for cooking make sure you don’t forget your most valuable player, the food thermometer. It’s the only way you can be sure your meat or poultry has reached a safe temperature. ”

By: Sean McNulty, Contributing Writer (Non-Lawyer)