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Home > Health Topics > Healthy Outlook > Bacteria Can Spoil Your Barbecue

Bacteria Can Spoil Your Barbecue


Published by Contra Costa Times
Posted on Wednesday, June 1, 2011
By Ernesto Jacobo, REHS

With Memorial Day weekend behind us, the barbecuing season has officially begun. If you avoided food poisoning so far, you're off to a good start. But let's make sure your grilling season is a happy and healthy one by preventing food-borne illness, and burns from hot grills.

Every summer, many Americans fall ill and some get hospitalized with preventable food-borne illness. Bacteria like E. coli and campylobacter are present in raw or undercooked meats and symptoms can last for days on end, but usually only supportive treatment is what's needed, but being sick is no fun.  The following simple steps and hand washing will go a long way.

Good BBQ health starts at the store.  Purchase raw meats just before heading to checkout. Put them in a plastic bag to avoid dripping on other foods. A single drop of raw chicken juice is enough to infect someone with a serious illness.

Store meat—even if it's marinating or thawing—in a refrigerator or cooler at or below 41°F, and on the bottom shelf of your refrigerator to avoid dripping and cross contamination.  Thawing meat on the counter may be faster, but not as safe. Ideally, transport raw meats in a cooler separate from ready to eat foods. If you plan to use marinade later, set some aside ahead of time.

When preparing, keep your workspace sanitary. Clean the surfaces and utensils before and after each use.  As much as possible, keep the area for raw meats free of other foods. Do not rinse chicken or other meats after unpacking. This can actually have the opposite effect, contaminating your sink, counter and knobs.

Make sure the grill is clean and use separate tongs for meats and vegetables. If you don't have two tongs, make sure to sanitize the tongs after contact with meat. Use a clean platter for cooked meats, not one that has old juices from raw meats.

To check for "done" meat, color can be misleading. Instead, go by internal temperature.  A simple meat thermometer from your local grocery store will do. It's best to find one with a range of 0°F to 220°F.  Minimal internal temperatures are:

  • Chicken: 165°F
  • Hamburger: 155°F
  • Pork: 145°F (newly revised guidelines this month!)
  • Precooked hot dogs: 135°F

When serving food—especially outdoors—make sure you have a lid or aluminum foil to protect it from airborne contaminants and flies.  It's best not to leave food out in the open after everyone has had his or her fill, and try to return food to the cooler as soon as people are finished eating.  Summer temperatures regularly hit 80°F to 100°F, which is perfect for bacteria to grow.

Some food-borne illnesses can take a week or longer for symptoms to surface. If you suspect you have contracted a food-borne illness from raw meat, contact your health care provider if you are really sick.

One last healthy BBQ  tip:  Using a "chimney" to start fires saves on lighter fluid costs and also reduces, bad food taste and Air Pollution exposure.  Happy BBqing and Happy Summer.

Ernesto Jacobo is a Registered Environmental Health Specialist for the Environmental Health Division of Contra Costa Health Services. Healthy Outlook is written by the professional staff of Contra Costa Health Services, the county health department. Send questions to series coordinator Dr. David Pepper at theairdoctor@gmail.com. For more health information, go to www.cchealth.org.

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