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Healthy Cookouts: 10 Safe Food-Handling Tips

On the Fourth of July, family picnics and cookouts are popular traditions. To keep cookouts healthy and fun, be sure to season your grill or picnic basket with safe-food handling practices, says Cindy Shaffer, M.D. [1], a Baptist Health Medical Group physician with Baptist Health Primary Care [2].

How important are safe-food handling steps? Consider this: The U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that each year food-borne diseases cause:

“Food-borne diseases are caused by consumption of contaminated food or drink,” Dr. Shaffer says, adding that there are more than 200 pathogens—bacteria, viruses or parasites—that can cause illness from food.

Her No. 1 tip for food safety: hand-washing, especially before cooking and before eating. Correct hand-washing can reduce the risk of cross-contamination, in which pathogens can spread from raw meat to other food items.

“Cooks can avoid cross contamination by washing hands with soap and warm water before handling raw meat and then before cooking,” Dr. Shaffer says.

Food Safety Tips:

You can minimize health risks by using safe food handling and grilling procedures, according to Tomas Villanueva [3], D.O., an internal medicine specialist, who is also chief of Primary Care  for Baptist Health Medical Group.

10 Safe Food-Handling Steps

Before the barbeque:
  1. At the grocery store, pick up meat last. Keep raw meat away from other food products in your cart. During check-out, ask the clerk to wrap meat and poultry in plastic bags. Those steps should prevent raw meat juices (which may contain harmful bacteria) from dripping on other products.
  2. Get your packages home as soon as possible. Perishable items should be refrigerated within two hours, but within 60 minutes when outdoor temperatures are above 90°F, according to federal health authorities.
  3. Work with clean hands .Wash your hands for at least 20 seconds with warm water and soap. Inspect your cooking equipment, including the grill and meat brushes.

“Wipe surfaces often,” Dr. Villanueva said. “Bacteria from undercooked meat can grow on vegetables that have been cut or washed on the same surface as the meat. Mix and use a sanitizer solution of one capful of chlorine bleach per gallon of water for cleaning work-area surfaces.”

  1. Place marinating food in the fridge. Sauces used to marinate raw meat and poultry should be tossed, and not used on cooked food. “Don’t taste the marinade or re-use it after raw meat has been added,” Dr. Villanueva said.
  2. Preheat the grill. Fire up the coals for 20 to 30 minute before you start cooking.
At the grill:
  1. The Centers for Disease Control & Prevention [4](CDC) recommends thoroughly cooking chicken and meat, using a thermometer designed for meat to test internal temperatures. Cook ground beef to an internal temperature of 160°F, steaks and roasts to 145 ºF-160 ºF, and poultry until it reaches 165°F, according to Safe Food Handling: Seven Super Steps to Safe Food In the Summer [5], a government publication.

“Bacteria such as E-coli and salmonella can still be present in undercooked meats such as hamburger and chicken. Bacteria can cause severe illness and even death,” Dr. Villanueva said. “Therefore, meats must be cooked to the proper temperature to ensure safety.”

  1. Don’t burn or char the food. Some research suggests there’s a possible link between cancer and consumption of food that has been grilled, fried or broiled at extremely high temperatures. To avoid charring, trim off visible fat. Use the microwave to precook meat and immediately place the food in the center of the grill with properly heated coals to the side. Cut away charred areas of the meat.
  2. Avoid cross-contamination. Put cooked meat on a clean plate and not on the unwashed platter that was used for raw meat. Use separate utensils for raw and cooked items.
  3. Don’t prepare and serve food if you have been sick with vomiting or diarrhea within the past 24 hours.
  4. Chill out with separate coolers for beverages and perishable foods. The cooler containing beverages is constantly opened and closed during a picnic, a scenario that could put perishable food at risk. Keep everything cool by completely packing each cooler with ice.

Summer wouldn’t be summer without grilling, but be sure you’re not putting your family at unnecessary risks for food-borne illness.