Grilling season brings the urge to show off your burger-flipping skills and infuse your favorite veggies with that fantastic charcoal taste of outdoor cooking. But, even the best of us occasionally sacrifice food safety when we help ourselves to potato salad that sat out all day in 90 degree heat, or use the unwashed plate that once held raw chicken to serve the grill-marked version to the table. Doing so could land you in bed with unwanted foodborne illness, and that’s not how most people envision spending their hard-earned vacation days.
The foods most often associated with foodborne illness include raw meat, poultry, eggs (salmonella passes directly to the egg via an infected chicken), and shellfish. Unpasteurized milk and juice, alfalfa sprouts (bacteria on the seeds multiply exponentially as the sprout grows), raw oysters, and unwashed fruits and vegetables are prone to bacterial growth. Bacteria thrive in the presence of moisture, high pH (acidic foods, like pickles, are less prone), and protein. At summer barbeques, we’re talking mostly about mayo-based salads (egg, chicken, potato/pasta, seafood), undercooked chicken and hamburgers, deli meat, and poorly washed cut fruits and vegetables, particularly melons (slicing the knife from the dirt-covered exterior through the sterile melon flesh drags bacteria into the fruit). Take particular stock of the shellfish you’re eating, as the CDC estimates an 85% increase in the number of infections by vibrio vulnificus in the last decade. Pregnant women, children, older adults, and individuals with compromised immune systems are especially at risk, but everyone should be careful.
The USDA Partnership for Food Safety Education uses four principles – Clean, Separate, Cook, and Chill – to help you remember the basics of food safety.
- Clean: Start with clean hands (wash with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, especially after using the bathroom, changing a diaper, touching garbage, or playing with pets). Also, wash food prep surfaces and utensils frequently. Use paper towels to dry hands, food, and surfaces. Rinse all of your fruits and vegetables in water, even prewashed greens, avocados, melon, bananas and other produce you peel before eating.
- Separate: Avoid cross contamination by washing up after handling raw meat, poultry, or fish, and don’t use the same utensils or cutting boards for other foods without thoroughly cleaning them. To clean, wash with soap and water that is hot enough to require gloves. Ideally, you should have a separate cutting board for meat and poultry, but the next best option is to cut up vegetables and fruit first (leaving the aromatics, like onion, peppers, and garlic for last to avoid flavor-mingling) and then prep any animal products, like eggs or meat last.
- Cook: Heat adequately – the general rule is that all poultry (duck, chicken, turkey) should be cooked to 165 degrees; ham, pork, eggs, and ground beef to 160 degrees; and fin fish and beef (medium rare) should reach 145 degrees. If you choose to eat seafood, beef, lamb, or other meat raw or rare, you take on a higher risk of foodborne illness, so you should choose judiciously and tell your guests. Know where it comes from and use extra caution when prepping and serving.
- Chill: Refrigerate uneaten food promptly, and if items like meat, eggs, cut fruit/veggies, dairy, deli-salads, and rice dishes sit longer than 2 hours at room temperature (1 hour in temperatures that exceed 90 degrees) they should be thrown out. Keep foods out of the “danger zone” (40 to 140 degrees), since it provides the optimum environment for bacterial growth. Your sniffer can detect sour milk and you know it’s time to discard the tomato sauce when you see mold filling the jar. However, lunch foods seldom look or smell “bad” by dinnertime, so heed the time and temperature danger zone to fight foodborne illness. Thawing frozen meat, fish, or poultry? Run under cold water or store it in the fridge the night before to thaw. Lastly, throw out leftovers within 2-3 days.
- Extras: Preheat grills/coals for 20-30 minutes before adding food, keep your cooler filled with extra ice to keep foods colder, use a thermometer to check cooking temps, store raw meat and poultry on the bottom shelf of the fridge, and never use the same marinade from uncooked meat or poultry during cooking unless you boil it for at least 60 seconds before brushing it on cooked food. If you’re concerned about Food Safety and Inspection Service recalls, you can get the most up-to-date listings at http://www.fsis.usda.gov/fsis_recalls/.
Follow these tips so you can enjoy your cookout and the days afterward. Unless, of course, you overdo it on the microbrews or s’mores…but that’s another issue altogether!