Editorial: Start summer off safely this Memorial Day weekend
May 24, 2018 | 5:00 PM
Summer doesn’t officially start until June 21, but for most people, Memorial Day weekend is the unofficial start of the season. That means cookouts, swimming pools and other outdoor activities. Not to rain on anyone’s fun — unfortunately, Mother Nature may take care of that this weekend if the forecast holds — but it’s important to remember to be safe as we resume many of these activities after a long break.
Foodborne illness increases during the summer months for two reasons. First, bacteria multiply faster in the warmer temperatures. Second, preparing food outdoors can make handling food safely more difficult. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service offers the following four steps to remember: clean, separate, cook and chill.
The first should go without saying. Wash your hands with warm, soapy water for at least 20 seconds before and after handling food. If you’re eating somewhere away from home — say a picnic at a park — don’t forget to bring some for cleaning or pack clean, wet disposable washcloths or moist towelettes to clean your hands and any surfaces.
Make sure to keep raw meats, fish and poultry separated from each other and from other foods, and clean any tools, such as grilling tongs, that you may use to handle raw meat before using them to handle another raw meat or cooked food. Make sure not to place cooked food on the same dish that previously held raw food until it’s been cleaned with hot, soapy water.
Once you start cooking, especially on an outdoor grill, make sure the food is heated for a long enough time and at a high enough temperature to kill any harmful bacteria. Have a meat thermometer to ensure you’ve cooked to the appropriate internal temperature, which is 145 degrees for steaks, roasts and chops; 160 degrees for ground meats; and 165 degrees for poultry. Don’t partially cook foods before you go either. Partially cooking food ahead of time allows bacteria to survive and multiply to the point that subsequent cooking cannot destroy them all, according to the USDA.
If packing meats in a cooler, make sure there is enough ice to keep them cold until it’s time to put them on the grill, then keep the cooler in a shady spot and out of the sun. If you have leftovers, make sure to get them chilled quickly. Leaving food out in the warm weather for longer than an hour can cause food to spoil and make it dangerous to eat.
But it’s not just food safety to worry about if you’re cooking outdoors. The National Fire Protection Association reports roughly 9,600 home fires involving grills each year. Keep your grill clean and remove any grease or fat buildups. And of course, make sure the grill is placed far enough away from the house, any deck railings or other items that may catch fire.
If you’re using a propane grill, make sure to tighten any hoses and check for potential leaks before firing it up for the first time of the season. Apply a light soap and water solution to the hose, then turn the tank on to check for leaks. If there is a gas leak, there will be bubbles around the hose large enough to see. No bubbles? You’re good to go.
For charcoal grills, if you’re using a starter fluid, stick to charcoal starter fluid — don’t use any other types of flammable liquids such as gasoline. Charcoal chimney starters that use newspapers as fuel may be a safer option. When you’re done, don’t forget to let the coals cool completely before properly disposing of them in a metal container, and keep the container away from the house or other combustible items such as a wood pile.
If you’re going swimming, remember not to leave young children unattended in or near water, even if lifeguards are present. And if you’re going to be outdoors for an extended period of time, don’t forget the sunscreen. Wear sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher and remember to reapply every few hours.
Finally, while not traditionally a fireworks holiday, pyrotechnics and the summer months seem to go hand-in-hand. Earlier this week, a Harford County man sustained first- and second-degree burns to his face and upper body after a firework mortar discharged and exploded.