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How to Prevent Foodborne Pathogens from Crashing Your Party

family cooking crowd group

The summer is now in full swing with cookouts, picnics, and potluck reunions! When planning menus for these events, remember to factor in food safety when cooking meals for large groups. By following our basic food safety tips, you can ensure that your guests won’t be felled by a foodborne illness.

“Make sure you have the right equipment, including cutting boards, utensils, a food thermometer, cookware, shallow containers for storage, soap, and paper towels. Additionally, for outdoor events, make sure you have a source of clean water. If not, bring water for food prep and cleaning,” FSIS spokesperson Maria Malagon advises.  “When it comes to perishable food, you have to be mindful of the 2-Hour Rule. This means, foods must not be left out of a refrigerator or freezer for more than two hours; 1 hour when the temperature is above 90 °F. Plan your shopping accordingly.”

Now you’re ready to prepare food, make sure to always wash your hands and surfaces with soap and warm water for 20 seconds before and after handling food. This is also true of cutting boards, dishes, utensils, and work spaces. Set aside separate areas during food prep, one area for raw meats, another for fruits or vegetables and yet another for cooked food.

When it comes to cooking, ALWAYS use a food thermometer to check the internal temperature of meat, poultry, casseroles, and other food. “One top common mistake people make when cooking: They often do not use a food thermometer. The color of meat is NOT a reliable indicator of doneness,” FSIS spokesperson Aaron Lavelle cautioned. “Please invest in a food thermometer and check the temperature in several parts of the meat to be sure it is cooked to a safe minimum internal temperature.”

  • Hamburgers and other ground beef should reach 160 °F.
  • All poultry should reach a minimum temperature of 165 °F.
  • Fully cooked meats like hot dogs should be heated until steaming hot.
  • Pork, lamb, veal, and whole cuts of beef should be cooked to 145 °F as measured by a food thermometer placed in the thickest part of the meat, followed by a three-minute rest time before carving or consuming.
  • Fish should be cooked to 145 °F.

Do not “partially” cook food for finishing later because you increase the risk of bacterial growth. Make sure to place the cooked meat on a clean platter, not on the dish that held them when they were raw. The juices left on the plate from raw meat can spread bacteria to safely cooked food.

Now you’re on your way to an event, please remember to keep hot food HOT and cold food COLD. Keep hot food at or above 140 °F by wrapping the food well and placing it in an insulated container. Keep cold food at or below 40 °F by placing the food in a cooler with a cold source such as ice or frozen gel packs.

Once you get to your destination, if your food needs to be reheated - make sure to reheat it to 165 °F or above. For sauces, soups, and gravies, they should be brought to a boil.

To keep food out of the “Danger Zone” (40 – 140 °F), we recommend hot foods be kept in hot sources such as chafing dishes, preheated steam tables, warming trays and/or slow cookers. Cold foods should be placed in containers over ice.

After the event, place leftovers in shallow containers and refrigerate or freeze them immediately. Discard food left out at room temperature for more than 2 hours; 1 hour when the temperature is above 90 °F. Remember, “When in doubt, throw it out!”

To learn more about the safety of cooking large meals and find out how long food can be kept in the refrigerator, check out FSIS' Cooking for Groups: A Volunteer's Guide to Food Safety. For more information, either call the USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline at 1-888-MPHotline (1-888-674-6854) or ask Karen 24 hours a day at

Posted in: Food SafetyTagged: Food Prep | Summer | Buffet