"Chill it, cook it, check it, keep it safe," is the message from New Jersey Department of Health officials to anyone planning to barbecue over the Fourth of July weekend.

Alexander Shalamov, ThinkStock

"Whether you're cooking out in the backyard or on a picnic, always keep cold foods cold and hot foods hot. When you're finished eating, refrigerate leftovers promptly," said Commissioner of Health Mary O'Dowd in an emailed press release July 2.  "Make sure you thoroughly cook beef, chicken or pork and wash your hands frequently as well as any surfaces used to prepare food."

One of the biggest risks of unsafe food handling is the possibility of harmful bacteria and other food-borne illnesses. "Bacteria on raw meat and poultry can easily spread to other foods by juices dripping from packages, hands and utensils," said Leslie Terjesen, a public information officer with the Ocean County Health Department.

To prevent food-borne illness, Terjesen recommends using separate utensils and platters for raw or cooked meat and poultry.  She also said people planning to cook at campgrounds or parks should find out if there is a source of clean water available for preparation and cleaning.

When grilling, E. coli can be found in the center of a ground beef burger if it's not cooked, and on the outer part of a steak, "You don't want to start to grill something and then throw it on the grill later. If you're going to cook something, you want to cook it all the way through," Terjesen said.

Meat and poultry aren't the only foods that can be harmful to people, fruits and vegetables can also cause illness.  "One of the most predominant ways to clean all fruits and vegetables is to wash them in vinegar or soak them in vinegar and then rinse them off in cold water to kill any type of bacteria that's on it.  In addition, always use two cutting boards to keep raw meet, chicken and fish about from vegetables," Terjesen said.

Mayonnaise can also be a problem when mixed with other foods.  If any mayonnaise-based foods get too warm, bacteria can grow.  Terjesen suggests throwing away any food that has been left out for one hour or longer.

Food-borne illness isn't the only risk when barbecuing.  According to data from the National Fire Protection Association, fire departments nationwide, including those in New Jersey, responded to an average of 8,600 home fires involving gas-fired or charcoal grills.  Those fires resulted in an annual average of 10 fatalities, 140 injuries and nearly $96 million in property damage.

"As we celebrate, I encourage residents to take all necessary precautions when using gas fired grills as the summer season begins. Unfortunately, there have been a number of instances where propane tanks have leaked volatile propane fumes, leading to fires and explosions," said New Jersey Department of Community Affairs Commissioner Richard Constable in an emailed press release July 2.

Here are some tips for safe summer cookouts from the New Jersey Department of Health:

Food Handling:

  • Thoroughly clean all cutting boards and surfaces that come in contact with raw food.
  • When preparing foods, use two cutting boards - one for raw meat, chicken and fish, and one for vegetables or other foods that will not be cooked.
  • Wash your hands for at least 20 seconds in warm soapy water before and after preparing foods.
  • Check to ensure food is thoroughly cooked by inserting a food thermometer at an angle into the thickest part of the meat, chicken or fish to check the internal temperature. Cook hamburgers to at least 155°F, chicken and stuffed meats to at least 165°F, and steaks, pork, fish and whole beef or pork roasts to at least 145°F.
  • Keep cold foods in the refrigerator until serving time.
  • Keep hot food hot by using tabletop equipment such as chafing dishes and sternos.
  • Refrigerate leftovers immediately. Discard food that has been left out for four or more hours.

 Gas Grills:

  • When lighting the grill for the first time, or anytime, make certain the lid is open or in an up position.
  • To maintain your gas grill, keep it covered when not in use. Replace worn or defective parts.
  • Check the gas valve to grill connections. Use soapy water only to check for leaks.
  • Always make certain the supply knobs and the propane tank itself are completely turned off
  • Never use any accelerant (lighter fluid, or charcoal lighting fluid) to light a gas grill.
  • Keep children away from the grill at all times.
  • Keep the grill away from any structure on your property, especially your home.
  • Do not grill in or under any structure.

Charcoal Grills:

  •  Never use anything other than charcoal briquettes, (wood, cardboard, etc.) in a charcoal grill.
  • Use only approved charcoal grill fluid to ignite the charcoal.
  • Keep children away at all times.
  • Keep the grill away from any structure on your property, especially your home.
  • Do not grill in or under any structure.