By James Limbach
— Nobody wants to start the summer with a stomach ache -- or worse. But, it probably will happen as people dust off the grill this Memorial Day weekend for the first cookout of the summer.
"When you fire up the grill to cook out this summer, make sure you are extra vigilant in taking the appropriate safe food handling steps to prevent foodborne illness," says Agriculture Department (USDA) Under Secretary for Food Safety Dr. Elisabeth Hagen. "Foods commonly served at cookouts can carry pathogens that can make people sick -- especially those most vulnerable to foodborne illness such as young children, the elderly and pregnant women."
The most popular picnic items, including prepared salads, chicken, hamburgers or hotdogs, are at risk of contamination with foodborne bacteria. USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) says following four basic food safety steps -- clean, separate, cook and chill -- during all cooking practices can help reduce foodborne illness.
Begin your cookout with a clean slate -- literally. Wash preparation surface areas with warm soapy water, especially after contact with raw foods.
Wash your hands with soap under warm water for 20 seconds before and after handling food. Make sure anyone who helps prepare food washes their hands as well.
Raw meat and juice from raw meat can contain harmful bacteria. To prevent cross-contamination, keep all raw meats and poultry separate from vegetables and cooked foods. Use different cutting boards and knives to prepare meats and vegetables.
After you've fired up the grill, remember the most important weapon in your food safety toolbox: the food thermometer. Proper heating temperatures kill foodborne bacteria. Despite what many people believe, color is not a reliable indicator of doneness.
Meat and poultry cooked on a grill often brown quickly and may appear done on the outside, but still may not have reached a safe minimum internal temperature to kill any harmful bacteria. The food thermometer gives you an accurate reading of internal temperature.
Place the thermometer in the thickest part of the meat to take a temperature reading. After reaching proper internal temperature, thick cuts of lamb, beef, and chicken require a three-minute rest time before carving and consuming.
Safe minimum internal temperatures include:
Remember to place cooked meats on a clean platter, not on the dish that held the raw product. The juices left on the plate from raw meat can spread bacteria to safely cooked food.
The last challenge is keeping hot food hot and cold food cold. Too often, food is left to sit out while guests graze over the course of several hours. Bacteria grow most rapidly between 40 degrees F and 140 degrees F. To keep bacterial growth at bay, keep hot food on the grill and place cold food in a cooler or ice bath. Never let perishable food sit out for more than two hours.
If the temperature is higher than 90 degrees F, food should not sit out more than one hour. Refrigerate or freeze leftovers promptly and discard any food that has been sitting out too long.
Need more information? The FSIS "Grill It Safe" webpage contains fact sheets, videos and podcasts about safe handling and preparation of food during warmer months.
Story provided by ConsumerAffairs.