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Memorial Day barbecues: Grilling your burgers wrong could kill you

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Memorial Day barbecues might look a little different this year because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but the risk of food poisoning hasn’t changed.

The federal holiday, which commemorates military personnel who died in service, is seen as the unofficial start to summer and grilling season.

According to the Hearth, Patio & Barbecue Association’s biennial consumer survey, 56% of grill owners plan to fire up the grill this week. The Fourth of July is the most popular grilling day, with 68% planning to barbecue.

Dealing with raw meat can be tricky, and cooking it improperly can be deadly. 

“Cooking food thoroughly and handling it correctly is critically important,” Carmen Rottenberg, a former administrator with the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, previously told USA TODAY. “The food produced is not sterile. … People want to cook raw food and prepare it at home. If you prepare it at home, you have to know there are some risks associated with it.”

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When grilling raw meat, there are multiple steps you can take to avoid getting food poisoning, especially with E. coli, which can cause dehydration, bloody diarrhea and abdominal cramps three to four days after exposure – and potentially kidney failure in children under 5 years old and in older adults, the CDC says.

“This summer may look different than most, and you can protect your family from foodborne illness and other illnesses during your summer celebrations by avoiding large gatherings, practicing social distancing, and washing your hands regularly,” Dr. Mindy Brashears, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Under Secretary for Food Safety, said in a news release.

Grilling safety tips for your cookout

Cook meats to a safe temperature. Use a food thermometer to check that your burgers or steaks have been cooked to a temperature that will help prevent foodborne illnesses from bacteria such as E. coli. Ground beef and pork should be cooked to an internal temperature of at least 160°F (70˚C). Steaks and roasts should be cooked to at least 145°F (62.6˚C) and allow to rest for three minutes after removal from the grill. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has a chart showing the safe cooking temperatures for foods.

Marinated no-no. Don’t reuse marinades that have been used with raw meat.

For kabobs, keep meat and vegetables separate. Put peppers, onions and carrots on separate sticks because veggies cook faster than the meat, and you don’t want your meat undercooked.

Don’t use the same plates or utensils. Whatever dish you bring the meats to the grill on should not be used to take them up, unless it’s cleaned thoroughly. That’s because bacteria from the raw meat can spread to the cooked meat. Have a clean plate or platter and clean utensils to take up food.

Practice cleanliness. You should wash your hands after preparing meats. Also wash your kitchen counter, cutting boards and utensils after they are used on raw meats.

Beyond meat. Keep chilled certain salads or desserts that were served cold. After being served, cold dishes should not stay outside for more than two hours – and just one hour if it is warmer than 90 degrees outside. Beyond that, toss it.

Special attention needed. Some are more likely to succumb to food poisoning from E. coli; children and newborns, pregnant women, the elderly, and those with weak immune systems are among those more susceptible.

Follow USA TODAY reporters Mike Snider and Kelly Tyko on Twitter: @MikeSnider and @KellyTyko.

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