How to Keep Food Safe When Tailgating Q&A
What is tailgating?
Tailgating is a fun American tradition where food is prepared and enjoyed near the back of a car or truck, often in the parking lot of a sporting, music or other large event. However, food-borne illness is no fun. Careful planning and onsite precautions can help ensure your food is safe to eat.

How do I pack for tailgating safely?
First, make sure you have enough large coolers (or a plug-in car cooler) to hold all of your food and beverages comfortably. Keep coolers clean by removing any standing water, and wiping out the interior with an antibacterial wipe or product.  Make sure you have enough gel or ice packs, and ice, to keep food cold, especially on hot days.

Tips for packing:

  • Pack the perishables, especially raw foods, separate from drinks and ready-to-eat foods
  • Pack meats separately from raw fruits and vegetables to avoid cross-contamination
  • Keep pre-made sandwiches and other foods tightly sealed
  • Put mayonnaise and similar products on ice just before you leave for the stadium, and then place them in the cooler last, on top of the other items
  • Pack just the food you need to minimize leftovers
  • Make sure you have a food thermometer to test food temperature

How should you safely handle meats while tailgating?
If you are going to cook hamburgers, it’s best to purchase already formed patties to minimize contact with the meat, and ultimately, cross contamination. Hand sanitizers, antibacterial wipes and disposable gloves can be used to ensure safe handling of raw foods. After you touch meat, never touch other foods. Throw gloves away after you use them, and immediately dispose of any food that falls, or comes in contact with, the ground or other unclean surface.
 
Can you cook food partially at home so it grills faster while tailgating?
Meat should be either cooked completely at home and then reheated at the game, or cooked completely at the game.  If you partially cook meat you will need to refrigerate or cool the meat, and then bring it back to its final temperature.

Meat must be cooked thoroughly (not burned) to avoid the spread of E. coli, Salmonella or other microorganisms that cause food borne illness. Ideally, hamburgers and hot dogs should be cooked to an internal temperature of 160 degrees. A thermometer is the only way to confirm optimal meat temperature, so it’s recommended to bring one along.

How long can foods like hot dogs and hamburgers sit out without being refrigerated?
According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), cooked foods should remain unrefrigerated or cooled no more than two hours.

What about mayonnaise-based foods, such as potato salad?
There is a misperception that mayonnaise-based products can easily make you sick. Mayonnaise is actually acidic, which protects foods against contamination from bacteria and viruses.  However, like any perishable food, mayonnaise-based products should be placed in a cooler before and after the meal.

How do you keep hot food hot?
A crock pot, even one that is unplugged, can keep hot foods warm for several hours. In addition, there are warming devices that can directly plug into a car power outlet.

Are leftovers from a tailgate safe to eat?
When the tailgate is over, make sure that any leftovers are properly chilled, wrapped up and placed back into a cooler, or thrown away. In general, when in doubt throw it out!

Sources:

Robert Gravani, PhD, Professor of Food Science at Cornell University, IFT member
Robert Brackett, IIT Vice President and Director, Institute for Food Safety and Health, Illinois Institute of Technology

In This Article

  1. Food Safety and Defense

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