Summer is the season for barbecue. Perhaps the first thing people think of when they think of barbecuing is tri-tip roasts and steaks, then maybe it is hamburgers. Of course, there are hotdogs, chicken and even the occasional pork chop or fish that turns up on the grill.
All are delicious served with their respective trimmings — buns, lettuce, tomatoes, pickles, onion and condiments. And let’s not leave out the sides, right? Potato and macaroni salads, fruit salads and baked beans or coleslaw are some of the featured foods found at barbecues. We cannot omit the desserts either — the fruit pies, cream pies, cakes, ice cream and the like.
Beef, chicken, pork and fish are all healthy sources of protein which provide important nutrients such as zinc, iron, Vitamin E and B vitamins. Fish also contains Omega3 fatty acids, which can help with heart health.
Yet, while people are finally enjoying a meal with their loved ones and friends, the furthest thing from their minds is a food-borne illness. Although getting a food-borne illness — most referred to as food poisoning — is possible anytime of the year, it seems we hear about it more often during the summer months when food tends to be left outside in the warm weather.
Bacteria love moist, warm environments, like those created when macaroni salads or cream pies are left on the picnic table for more than an hour or two. The “danger zone” for optimum bacterial growth is between 40 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit. Therefore, keep cold foods cold (on ice until served if your event is outside, and iced while transporting) and hot foods hot — below 40 degrees and above 140 degrees. Food should be refrigerated as soon after eating as possible, but no longer than two hours; no longer than one hour if the temperature outside is very hot (above 90 degrees).
Before cooking, start with clean utensils, cutting boards, plates and hands. Hands (including under the nails, backs of the hands and wrists) should be washed for 20 seconds under warm running water with soap, rinsed thoroughly and dried with a paper towel or clean cloth towel.
When cooking raw meat, it should not touch “ready-to-eat” foods such as raw fruits or vegetables, and the same utensils and plates used for raw meat should not be used for cooked meat. Doing so causes cross-contamination, which is the transference of bacteria in the raw meat back to the cooked meat, or to the raw fruits and vegetables. This includes knives and cutting boards — these can transfer bacteria from raw meats to uncooked food, too.
Incomplete cooking is another way food-borne illnesses are transmitted. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, new cooking regulations for meat are that beef should be cooked to an internal temperature of 145 degrees for fresh cuts of meat (steaks, roasts, etc.) and then allowed to rest for three minutes once removed from the heat source. This allows the internal temperature to continue to rise, thoroughly killing all bacteria. For ground meat (ground beef or pork) the internal temperature is 160 degrees, with no rest time needed. Fresh pork (roasts or chops) needs to be cooked to an internal temperature of 145 degrees and allowed to rest for three minutes. The internal temperature of meat can be tested using a meat thermometer. Fish should be opaque and flake easily with a fork when done. All poultry products (i.e., drumsticks and thighs, etc.), including ground chicken and ground turkey, need to be cooked to an internal temperature of 165, with no resting time needed.
Meats are not the only food items which can harbor bacteria that can cause a food-borne illness. Foods containing milk or eggs are also culprits. These may include potato or pasta salads, cream pies, cheesecakes, etc.
Symptoms of a food-borne illness include nausea, vomiting and diarrhea, and can strike a few hours or up to 72 hours after the contaminated food has been eaten and will usually last about 24 hours. Mayoclinic.org recommends treating food poisoning with rest, drinking clear fluids such as water or club soda (as tolerated) to replace fluids lost through vomiting or diarrhea, then soft, easily digestible foods such as crackers or Jell-O.
Some groups are more susceptible than others to food-borne illnesses — children, the elderly, pregnant women and people with compromised immune systems. If symptoms are severe, one should seek medical attention. A loss of fluids due to vomiting or diarrhea can lead to dehydration, which requires medical intervention.
By following cooking and food safety techniques you can ensure that your outdoor barbecue or get-together will be safe, fun and free of food-borne illnesses.