It’s summer. The northern hemisphere is tilting towards the sun, the days are long, and everyone’s getting ready to barbecue. That’s great!
As August’s heat and Labor Day nears, we remember the true reason we really love the summer. We love a good barbecue. But that baking summer heat and ample variety of meats means that bacteria aren’t just surviving – they’re thriving. And there’s a chance that some of them might make you sick. To help you avoid that possibility, we’ve assembled a list of food safety tips so that you can put on your novelty apron, crank up the radio, and grill without fear of food poisoning.
- Wash your hands: This one may seem obvious, but it’s important. You need to wash your hands properly before you start warming up the coals and bust out the beef. Be sure to use hot water and plenty of soap. Antibacterial soap is a must. Lather thoroughly, and don’t forget the spaces between your fingers and the backs of your hands. This writer personally likes to rub their hands together like a greedy cartoon villain who has caught sight of something that they want. If you can’t wash your hands because you’re grilling in a remote location, don’t lose hope. There are alternatives available, like hand sanitizer or sanitary wipes. They’re not a perfect replacement for washing your hands, but they will get where you need to go in a pinch.
- Store smart: How should you store your food before throwing it on the BBQ? One important tip is to store your raw meat and your vegetables separately from one another. This is easy enough if you’re barbequing and home, but it can be a little bit tricky if you’ve gone to the lake for a weekend and you’re storing all of your barbequing stuff in a cooler. Ideally, you want to store your meat and veggies in separate containers; tupperware works well for this purpose, as it has sealable lids and is easy to clean. If you can’t get tupperware, seal the meat in plastic ziplock bags, which are less likely to leak than other kinds of packaging. If for whatever reason you can get your hands on neither plastic bags nor tupperware, pack your meat at the bottom of the cooler and your non-meat items on top of it.. That way, the juices (and bacteria) from you meat won’t drip down onto food items below.
- Keep your plates, utensils, and surfaces clean: This one is related to the two points above, and it should be fairly easy. Make sure that you’re working with a clean environment before you sit down to prep your meat. That goes for everything that you’re using. Start with the surfaces that you’ll be using to prep your food, like cutting boards or counters. Wipe them down with a commercial cleaner, like Windex, and give them ample time to dry. Make sure that your grill and tongs are free and clear of residual gunk from barbeques past. You’ll probably be using knives to prep your meat and vegetables; be sure that they’re clean before you start to use them. Don’t use the same knives to cut both vegetables and meat. If you do use the same knives, be sure to wash them before switching (especially if you’ve been using them for meat and you’re switching to vegetables!)
- Cook thoroughly: Nobody wants to follow up a nice barbeque with an evening of indigestion – or worse. You can avoid inadvertently poisoning yourself or your guests by ensuring that you cook all your meats thoroughly before serving them. Cutting into your steaks to see how pink they are will do in a pinch, but for best results, bring a meat thermometer. Before serving the meat, remove it from the grill and place it on a clean plate. Then pierce it with the meat thermometer at its thickest point. If you’re cooking hamburgers, stick the thermometer in at the side and push it all the way to the middle. Pork and beef should be cooked to 165 degrees Fahrenheit; everything else needs to be heated to 160 or 165. Check out the safe food temperatures chart on foodsafety.gov for more specific information. One more thing: remember to wash your thermometer between insertions into different pieces of meat to avoid cross-contamination. There is nothing worse than doing the right thing, just to get sick anyway.
- Don’t char your food: This is a delicate balance. You want your meat to be heated to a safe internal temperature, but leaving grill marks on your meat is a no-no. Charring meat produces a carcinogenic compound called acrylamide. Eat too much acrylamide, and you might cause damage to your long term health. If you do get charred bits, just scrape them off before eating and you should be good.
- Let it rest. Resting time for meat is just as important as its cooking time. Give your meat a few minutes to rest before you eat it – to allow it to continue to finish cooking internally and to save your tongue from that annoying food burn. It is only a few more minutes. It is worth it, we promise.
- Don’t forget your veggies: Nobody likes a scold. For many red-blooded Americans, meat is an important part of the barbeque, and suggesting that they cut back is tantamount to treason. We’re not suggesting that you cut out meat entirely. Diets that are too heavy in meat, however, are linked to higher rates of heart disease, as well as stomach and bowel cancer, by a growing body of evidence. To mix it up a little and improve your long-term health outcomes, balance the steaks and hotdogs on your grill with onions, peppers, and other grill-ready veggies. They can be charred safely, and you don’t have to worry about carcinogenic chemicals or zoonotic bacteria like Salmonella or E. coli.
We at MakeFoodSafe wish you and yours a happy grilling season, full of food safety, good food, and fun.
By: Sean McNulty, Contributing Writer (Non-Lawyer)