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Food Safety for Hamburgers and Tailgating

Posted by Diane Van, Food Safety Education Staff Deputy Director, USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service in Health and Safety
Sep 09, 2011

In anticipation of the beginning of football and tailgating season, I have put together  some of the most frequently asked questions that USDA's Meat and Poultry Hotline receives about hamburgers and food safety. Whether you’re grilling burgers at home or outside the stadium, here’s what you need to know:

Do you have guidelines for buying ground beef or hamburgers?  What's the best way to handle them?

  • Choose a package that is not torn and feels cold. If possible, put it in a plastic bag so leaking juices won't drip on other foods.
  • Make ground beef one of the last items to go into your shopping cart. Be sure to separate raw meat from ready-cooked items in your cart.
  • Have the cashier bag raw meat separately from other items and plan to drive directly home. You may want to take a cooler with ice for perishables.

How should I store ground beef at home?

Refrigerate or freeze ground beef as soon as possible after purchasing. This preserves freshness and slows growth of bacteria. It can be refrigerated or frozen in its original packaging if the meat will be used soon.

  • If refrigerated, keep at 40 °F or below and use within 1 or 2 days.
  • For longer freezer storage, wrap in heavy duty plastic wrap, aluminum foil, freezer paper, or plastic bags made for freezing. Ground beef is safe indefinitely if kept frozen at 0 °F, but will lose quality over time. It is best if used within 4 months.
  • Never leave ground beef or any perishable food out at room temperature for more than 2 hours (1 hour at 90 °F and above).

Is It Done Yet?  How can I tell when my burgers are safely cooked?

Hamburgers should be cooked to a safe minimum internal temperature to destroy harmful bacteria that may be present. Use a food thermometer to be sure they have reached a safe minimum internal temperature of 160 °F.  If you’re cooking turkey burgers, they should be cooked to 165 °F.

  • NEVER partially grill meat or poultry and finish cooking later.
  • Keep Hot Food Hot! After cooking meat and poultry on the grill, keep it hot until served — at 140 °F or warmer. Keep cooked meats hot by setting them to the side of the grill rack, not directly over the coals where they could overcook.  If you’re at home, the cooked meat can be kept hot in an oven set at approximately 200 °F, in a chafing dish or slow cooker, or on a warming tray.

I worry about my father-in-law forgetting to take a clean plate to the grill for cooked burger.  Is it safe to use the same plate for raw and cooked burgers?

No. To prevent foodborne illness, don't use the same platter and utensils for raw and cooked hamburgers. Harmful bacteria present in raw meat and their juices can contaminate safely cooked food. You can either use a clean plate for the cooked burgers or wash the one that held the raw ones.

Can I refrigerate or freeze leftover cooked hamburgers?

Yes, if ground beef is refrigerated promptly after cooking (within 2 hours; 1 hour if the temperature is above 90 °F), it can be safely refrigerated for about 3 or 4 days. If frozen, it should keep its quality for about 4 months.

For more information on the safe preparation and handling of ground beef and hamburgers, check out these fact sheets:

Beef...from Farm to Table

Ground Beef and Food Safety

Tailgating Food Safety Q & A

Is It Done Yet?

If you have any other questions about tailgating, ground beef, or hamburger, feel free to contact us at the Hotline (1-888-674-6854 toll-free) or online at

Category/Topic: Health and Safety