When football season is in full swing, college campuses around the country come alive with school colors and alumni. Even some high schools around the state are getting in on the tailgating scene before their games.

These parking lot picnics are synonymous with good food, good friends and good times. A quick glance across any parking lot near the sports stadium will find smoke billowing from grills and smokers and folding tables laden with all kinds of tantalizing tailgate treats.

As much fun as this can be, these get-togethers also can have the potential for serious foodborne illnesses such as E. coli or salmonellosis if you do not follow safe food handling practices, said Barbara Brown, Oklahoma State University Cooperative Extension food specialist.

“Just as you follow food safety practices in your own home, the same must be done for these outdoor food fests,” Brown said. “Bacteria are most often spread when proper hand-washing techniques are not used, when uncooked foods are allowed to cross contaminate foods that are ready to eat, when needed end-point temperatures are not met and when hot foods are not kept hot and cold foods are not kept cold. These issues can be tricky when you’re setting up your party in a parking lot.”

Washing hands is the single most effective way to prevent the spread of disease-causing bacteria. Hands should be washed with soap and water before handling food and before handling a different food. Keep in mind hand gels kill the bacteria but they do not remove dirt and dead bacteria.

A hand washing site can be set up at any tailgate party by placing water in an unplugged coffee urn or large insulated drink container with a spigot. Be sure to include soap, paper towels and a container to catch the waste water.

Perishable foods such as meat, poultry, fish, eggs, dairy products, sandwiches and salads must be kept on ice or in a refrigerator. These foods should not be kept at temperatures above 40 degrees Fahrenheit for more than two hours.

“Although Oklahoma has experienced a milder-than-normal summer, the temperature will still be warm, especially the first few games of the season. If the outdoor temperature is above 90 degrees Fahrenheit, reduce that amount of time to just one hour,” she said. “Once foods are cooked, they should be kept at 140 degrees Fahrenheit or warmer with some type of heat source until they are served or refrigerated.”

Pack cold food with plenty of ice or frozen gel packs. Try to avoid cross-contamination by wrapping foods well and storing foods that require cooking separately from ready-to-eat foods.

Another trick to help keep foods cool is to cover coolers with blankets and keep them in the shade to help hold in the cold temperature.

For those tailgaters who opt for takeout foods such as fried chicken, make sure it is eaten within two hours of being picked up. Another option is to purchase the food ahead of time. Allow it to chill in the refrigerator and then store it in a cooler when you take it to your tailgate party.

Cover all food with plastic wrap, aluminum foil or lids, or keep foods and supplies in their original packaging to prevent contamination.

Tailgaters also should make sure garbage cans with plastic liners and lids are available.

“Once the game is over, take all your tailgating equipment home to clean it,” Brown said. “Be sure to clean the containers in which you store your equipment. This will help ensure a victory at your next tailgate party.”