It’s the summer season, and people are flocking outdoors to enjoy the sunshine and bask in the warmth. They are also firing up their grills to enjoy a good old backyard barbecue.
However, there is an increased risk of foodborne illness during BBQ season and that’s because people are cooking more raw meat.
“Barbecuing is known to increase the risk of foodborne illness because often raw meat, which is known to contain foodborne pathogens, is also mixed with foods we typically consume raw, like fresh fruits and vegetables, lettuce, tomatoes … and so forth,” Lawrence Goodridge, a food science professor at the University of Guelph, told The Weather Network.
Typically foods like meat used in hamburgers or turkey burgers tend to be consumed at a higher rate, which increases the chance of foodborne illness. Goodridge says backyard get-togethers often mean multiple people preparing food, and could also mean meats are not being cooked as long as they should be.
A major culprit in outbreaks of foodborne illness is the E. coli bacteria, which can be spread in a number of ways if food isn’t prepared properly.
“If you, for example, have a plate that has raw hamburgers on it and you then, without washing that plate, place tomatoes and lettuce and other vegetables that you might put on a hamburger on that plate, then the raw meat juice can contaminate those vegetables,” Goodridge. “And because those vegetables will not be cooked, then this is how cross-contamination can lead to foodborne illness.”
STEPS TO PREVENT FOODBORNE ILLNESS
There are several ways to mitigate the chance of foodborne illness, beginning with the shopping experience.
“The first thing is: separate,” Goodridge says. “When shopping, separate meat and poultry from foods that will be consumed raw, like fruits and vegetables. Buy the meat and poultry at the last, pick that up from the coolers at the last step of shopping. Don’t get it right away and then stay in the grocery store for an hour,” said Goodrige.
Once you get home from the store, put those groceries in the fridge or freezer right away, especially if it’s hot outside.
Goodridge says to keep meat and poultry cool until you’re ready to barbecue, and before you even begin preparing them for the grill, be sure to wash your hands.
“Everybody who is preparing food should be washing their hands with water and soap before and after handling raw meat,” he says.
Food preparation surfaces should be kept clean as well. Meat preparation utensils and surfaces should be washed before coming into contact with other raw ingredients like fruits and vegetables.
And when thawing food, Goodridge warns against doing it at room temperature.
“Room temperature is the temperature where bacteria like E. coli and salmonella that make us sick, grow. So if you leave meat out overnight at room temperature to thaw then the bacteria have many hours to grow to a high-level,” he added.
The best thing, he says, is either to thaw meat in the refrigerator, or to let it thaw in a sink, submerged in water. In this case, the water should be changed out several times.
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Now the cooking part comes in, and it is the most important part to consider because different meats must be cooked to different temperatures.
“Hamburgers and any other ground meat have to be cooked all the way through and the reason for that is because bacteria can be on the inside, like in the middle of the hamburger. They need to be cooked all the way through to a temperature of 160°F (71°C),” says Goodridge.
Whole cuts of beef, pork or lamb leg, including steaks, should be cooked to 145°F (62°C), as should fish. Poultry and precooked meats like hot dogs should be cooked at 165°F (74°C).
When cooking, the meat thermometer is your friend, though for burgers, Goodridge says it should be inserted through the middle of the patty from the side, not from the top.
Cooked too much food? There’s a proper way to store leftovers too: Divide them into small portions and place them in shallow containers.
“Don’t place large amounts of meat into one big container because the heat will actually take it a longer time to cool down,” Goodridge says. “The leftovers should be put into a freezer or fridge within two hours of grilling but if it’s particularly hot outside, like above 32°C, then it should be placed into a freezer fridge within one hour.”
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Different bacteria grow in different environments, but Goodridge stresses it is the bacteria that grows at room temperature that can make us sick.
“There’s bacteria that will spoil food and they tend to grow at low temperatures like [4°C], so those are the bacteria that spoil food. Then there’s the bacteria like E-Coli and Salmonella that make us sick. They really only grow at room temperature or above,” said Goodridge.
But there is ONE exception to this rule: a bacterium called listeria, which can grow at room and body temperatures, but also at refrigerator temperatures. Goodridge says it can be found in meats such as deli products, so once opened, those kinds of meats should be eaten within three or four days.
Although there is a risk of foodborne illness associated with raw meats, Goodridge doesn’t want Canadians to worry.
“It’s important for Canadians to understand that our food supply is one of the safest in the world. In fact, recent reports have ranked the Canadian food supply as the safest in the world,” he said. “I think we need to exercise caution but we shouldn’t be concerned that our food is heavily contaminated with foodborne pathogens.”