Mr. Norris, my son became deathly ill (though, we’re happy to say, he recovered) from a food-borne illness he contracted at a birthday barbecue last year. With summer quickly approaching, would you please discuss some food safety tips for that favorite American pastime? – “Grateful for the Grilling” in Georgia
For many of us, picnic and barbecue season officially starts this Memorial Day weekend. I enjoy my grilling as much as any of my fellow Americans. But as a young man, I never realized there were so many solid safety steps I should have taken behind those steaks I was grilling.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 76 million people get sick, more than 300,000 are hospitalized and 5,000 Americans die annually as a result of food-borne illnesses. Those who are most susceptible are the very young, the elderly and those whose immune systems are weak or compromised because of illness.
With our rapidly changing world, global travel, extensive trade, changes in food production, more food importation and distribution, microbial adaptation, and public health systems struggling to keep up with it all, we must be increasingly diligent to protect ourselves and our loved ones against the rise in food-borne diseases – especially during summertime festivities, when open air and raw meats are exposed even more to environmental elements.
Whether you prefer the long, low and slow barbecuing of tender and moist ribs, pork shoulder and brisket or you prefer the quick and hot grilling of chicken, burgers, steak, seafood and veggies, there are some safety tips you should follow.
Believe it or not, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service has great resource guides on its website. It has lots of information – including fact sheets, videos and podcasts – to help you keep your family and friends infection-free.
There’s a card there that can be printed out or viewed on your smart phone so that you can keep those healthy tips at your fingertips while you’re grilling. Some of that advice may be basic for you master grillers, but a refresher at the beginning of every barbecuing year is always in good order.
Most good BBQ advice comes down to four words: clean, separate, cook and chill.
Before handling any food, thoroughly wash your hands, utensils and grill.
Clean boards and thermometers in hot, soapy water before use and between uses.
If you’re eating away from home, ensure there’s a source of clean water. If not, bring clean water for food preparation and cleaning, and pack clean cloths and moist towelettes for cleaning hands and surfaces. And bring some hand sanitizer for others, too.
Separate raw meat and poultry from other food to guard against cross-contamination.
Keep raw meat juices away from cooked foods. To prevent cross-contamination, don’t use the same plates you placed uncooked meats on to hold cooked items. Use clean and different plates for different, uncooked and cooked meats.
Completely thaw meat before cooking so it cooks more evenly. Keep it refrigerated or, if you’re away from your house, in a cooler packed full of ice or gel packs to keep the food at 40 F or less until you’re ready to cook. And avoid the “danger zone” – temperatures between 40 F and 140 F – in which bacteria can grow rapidly.
Don’t let fragile and fresh foods stay unrefrigerated for longer than two hours. It’s one hour if the temperature is higher than 90 F.
Make sure your grill is hot enough to safely place and cook your food on it.
Make sure your gas grill is evenly heated for cooking. Don’t place meats on any cold spots on the grill or where the gas is not turned on.
If you barbecue with charcoal, buy commercial charcoal briquettes or aromatic wood chips.
Use a food thermometer to ensure meat reaches a safe minimum internal temperature to kill any harmful bacteria. (Raw beef, pork and lamb and veal steaks, chops and roasts should be cooked to a minimum internal temperature of 145 F. Raw ground beef, pork, lamb and veal should be at least 160 F. All raw poultry should be at least 165 F.)
Wash your hands before handling leftovers.
Throw in the garbage any marinades or sauces that come in contact with raw meat juices.
In clean containers or plates, immediately store leftovers in the refrigerator, the freezer or a cooler.
Practice those safety tips with perspective. Don’t lose the joy of spending time with family or friends (or allow your children to) by worrying to excess about contaminates. Share this column with your loved ones, and delegate some of the safety actions above to others so that you’re not alone in shouldering everyone’s health.
And most of all, especially when it comes to Memorial Day and Independence Day, let us bow our heads in prayer before eating that good grub and give thanks not only for the food but also for our freedoms and the freedom fighters who have fought to secure our liberties so we can enjoy our barbecue festivities.