By Brian O'Connell
It's the height of the football season, with the NFL halfway through its schedule and college football powers trying to separate themselves from the pack to play for a national championship.
So whether you're in Baton Rouge or Buffalo, the pre-game ritual of tailgating may be in your future.
The Institute of Food Technologists and the U.S. Department of Agriculture have some tips to make your football fiesta safe as well as salivating, since both say food safety is a big issue with tailgating, and that food-borne illness is a common occurrence after improper planning.
It's a good idea to use a big cooler (or even more than one) to store your food and drinks -- a no-brainer, right? But what can make a big difference is cleaning out your cooler before using it and removing any standing water. Use an antibacterial wipe to clean inside and make sure you have enough gel or ice packs to keep food fresh.
Here are some more tips to keep you and your gridiron revelers safe at tailgates:
Pack the perishables (think raw foodstuffs) separately from ready-to-eat foods and from beverages.
Pack meats apart from raw produce to thwart "cross contamination."
Keep pre-made food packed tightly in airtight containers.
If you're bringing mayonnaise or horseradish, pack them last and make sure they are on ice.
Bring a food thermometer. The USDA says packed food should never reach 40 degrees or above, and that's where the thermometer and a good, clean, secure cooler comes in handy.
The best way to cook hamburgers is to use pre-formed patties. That minimizes contact with the meat and helps prevent cross-contamination. Bring hand sanitizers, disposable gloves or antibacterial wipes to guarantee the safe handling of food.
It's best to cook your meat at home before you hit the parking lot. If you do cook at the game, make sure meat is cooked completely to prevent E. coli, Salmonella and other microorganisms that can lead to illness. Also, don't leave hot dogs and burgers out of your cooler for more than two hours. After that, the chances are good that your food is tainted.