People at a summer cookout.

Every year, health officials see a summer spike in foodborne illness, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). For example, just this past weekend, health officials in Charlotte, N.C., announced that at least 40 attendees of a cookout were hospitalized after eating food that appeared to be contaminated by the foodborne pathogen Shigella.

More About Grilling

“Even though everyone wants to have a great time sharing an outdoor meal with their friends,” says James E. Rogers, Ph.D., Consumer Reports director of food safety, “it’s crucial to observe some basic safety guidelines. No one wants to get sick after your party.”

The USDA just released a study (PDF) on safe food handling revealing—among other things—that 97 percent of the time, consumers fail to wash their hands properly before they handle food, which can lead to the spread of foodborne illness. In fact, county health officials in Charlotte suspect the recent Shigella incident stemmed from improper handwashing.

But handwashing isn’t the only potential pitfall when it comes to summer cookouts: Meat storage, cooking temperatures, and cross contaminating your cooking utensils are all ways that dangerous bacteria can spread.

Thankfully, taking a few easy precautions can mit­igate or eliminate food-safety risks. Here’s how to prep, cook, and serve so that your meal is as safe as it is satisfying.

Wash Your Hands the Right Way

Before you prepare any food, whether you're about to handle raw meat or make a salad or a dip, be extra-cautious about washing your hands. The most effective method is soap and warm water (skip the antibacterial wipe, because it’s not more effective at killing foodborne pathogens and may help to promote antibiotic resistance), and wash for at least 20 seconds. 

Be Wary of Cross-Contamination

The USDA study also examined incidences of cross-contamination, the process where bacteria is spread from food or poorly washed hands to other surfaces. People may know that they shouldn't use the same platter for raw meat as they do for cooked, but almost half the respondents in the USDA study inadvertently contaminated spice bottles by touching them while they were preparing burgers.

So be sure to wash hands frequently while preparing food, especially after they come in contact with raw meat, fish, or egg yolks.  Also, clean utensils and prep surfaces with soapy water, and don’t use the same cutting board for meat and produce.

Store It Safely

Even in a cooler packed to the brim, make sure your raw meat does not come into contact with vegetables or other foodstuffs. “Many people forget to keep everything separated when they pack a cooler,” Rogers says.

The key step is packing with care. Place everything in airtight, resealable containers so that they won't leak. If available, you can even keep meat and seafood in a separate cooler from the rest of your food.

Choose Your Protein Carefully

Howie Velie, a chef and associate dean at the Culinary Institute of America in New York, recommends grilling lean and tender cuts of meat, which tend to heat evenly—filet mignon, strip steak, chicken breasts, pork tenderloin, lamb chops—and seafood such as salmon and scallops.

Also, if the meat is frozen, be sure to thaw it completely in the refrigerator before throwing it on the grill. Otherwise, it may not heat evenly and might end up with some dangerous raw bits.

Marinate on This

Always marinate your meat, poultry, or fish in the refrigerator; bacteria can multiply if food is left at room temperature for longer than 2 hours, Rogers says. Don’t attempt to use the marinade again. “Just throw it out,” says Rogers. “It’s too risky to baste meat with it or use it as a sauce later.”

Take Your Meat’s Temperature

Most of the respondents in the USDA study didn’t own a meat thermometer, and of those who did, many didn’t use it—or made common mistakes.

Checking a protein’s doneness by looking at the color or touching it is not a reliable way to make sure it is cooked to a safe temperature. That’s at least 145° F for steaks, roasts, chops, and fish; 160° F for ground beef or pork; and 165° F for poultry.

When you use a thermometer, don't test just one of the items you're cooking—each patty or steak needs its own test. And for a more accurate reading, stick the thermometer in the side of the item rather than the top, and make sure it reaches the center.

Serve It Promptly

For the sake of food safety, serve hot items right away and keep cold dishes, such as pasta or potato salad, in a refrigerator or cooler until everybody’s ready to dig in. They can spoil very rapidly when sitting out in the heat. 

“You especially need to watch out for creamy dishes that contain eggs and dairy, like coleslaw and potato salad,” says Rogers. “Many food poisoning incidents start with items like that sitting in the hot sun.”

This is especially true as the thermometer creeps up. "Mayo-based potato salad can last 2 hours in normal temperatures, but that time is cut in half when the temperature tops 90 degrees," says Adam Ghering, M.S., spokesperson for the Food Safety Education Staff division of the USDA.

Know Before You Go

It pays to do a little research—if your cookout will take place at a local park or beach or other location away from home, find out whether there’s a source of clean water and soap to wash dishes and hands. If there isn't, bring along a jug of water, soap, and paper towels.