Grill for Fun, Not Food-Borne Illness

Last Editorial Review: 5/18/2005

Avoid the most common meat mistakes when you cookout

By Mark Moran, MPH
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Feature

Reviewed By Kathleen Zelman, MPH, RD, LD

The holiday weekend is here, and your grill is calling you. Americans will consume millions of hamburgers and countless tubs of salad, coleslaw, and potato salad this weekend with friends and family.

Will your weekend be memorable for fun and relaxation? Or will it be a food poisoning nightmare?

Experts agree that from the farm, to the manufacturing plant, to the grocery store, your holiday foods undergo the most rigorous safety monitoring of anywhere in the world. But at the end of that food chain, it's the chefs in your kitchen and at the backyard barbecue who can make or break the weekend.

Food-borne outbreaks are as likely to be due to careless handling of food at home as they are to errors in the manufacturing and processing of foods, says George Sandler, PhD, of the Illinois Institute of Technology and the National Center for Food Safety and Technology, Chicago.

In preparing virtually every kind of food likely to be gracing picnics and barbecues, "cross-contamination" is one of the most common food safety mistakes, say food safety specialists at Kansas State University Research and Extension Service. Cross-contamination happens when potentially harmful, disease-causing organisms are transferred from one food to another. For example, by using the same knife to cut raw meat, then vegetables.

This is one of the easiest mistakes to correct. Washing hands before and after handling raw or cooked foods, using clean utensils and cutting boards for each task, and remembering to place cooked meats on a different plate than the one used for raw meat, can significantly reduce food-borne illness, they say.

Now, about those burgers.

William Schaffner, MD, chair of preventive medicine at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine in Nashville, tells WebMD that undercooked ground beef can be a source of E. coli 0157:87, a bacteria that can cause severe stomach distress, including vomiting and diarrhea. In the worst cases -- especially in older people, children, or people whose immune defenses are compromised -- contamination with E.coli can lead to kidney failure.

Schaffner says the old wisdom that a burger browned on the outside is a safe one, no longer applies.

"When storing foods to cool, the trick is to use shallow containers so the cooling reachs all parts of the vessel."

"The main risk with E.coli is in ground beef," he says. "That's because the meat can become contaminated in the slaughtering process. If you buy a steak contaminated on its surface and you grill the steak, the bacteria get scorched."

Not so with ground beef, Schaffner says. "Here you take a lot of steak, and the bacteria is ground up and mixed in. Now you have a patty with bacteria on the surface and on the interior. That's why we say if you are going to grill a hamburger, you should cook it all the way through -- no red spots and no pink spots."

Food safety specialists at Kansas State University offer the following tips for grilling burgers:

  • Start with clean hands, a clean work surface; and fresh meat. Gently shape ground beef into patties and place them on a clean plate or platter. Cover and refrigerate the hamburger patties until ready to cook or grill.
  • Defrost frozen patties on a covered plate or platter in the refrigerator. Place the plate or platter on the bottom shelf of the refrigerator to prevent meat juices from dripping on other fresh foods. Thaw frozen patties completely -- partially thawed patties may not cook evenly.
  • After handling raw meat, wash hands thoroughly. Clean and sanitize utensils and work surface.
  • Cook the hamburger patties over medium heat, or grill them over medium, ash-colored coals. Grill two-inch thick patties 11-13 minutes or until the center reaches 160 F.
  • Use a long-handled spatula or grill tongs to turn burgers half way through cooking, and do not press or flatten burgers. Doing so may force out flavorful juices and make the hamburgers taste dry.
  • Is it done yet? Use a meat thermometer to check end-point temperature.
  • Use a clean spatula or grill tongs to transfer fresh-cooked hamburgers to a clean plate or platter. Do not use the same platter or plate that was used for raw patties unless it has been washed and sanitized.
  • Refrigerate leftovers promptly; before serving, reheat completely.

Chicken, too, is likely to be a favorite this weekend. Schaffner says between 10-20% of raw chicken will be contaminated with salmonella, a bacterium that is widespread in the intestines of birds, reptiles, and mammals. The illness it causes, salmonellosis, typically includes fever, diarrhea, and stomach cramps. In people with poor underlying health or weakened immune systems, it can invade the bloodstream and cause life-threatening infections.

As with beef, thorough cooking of chicken can prevent contamination. But it is equally important to clean cutting boards and bowls used to store and prepare the bird, Schaffner says.

"If you put it back into the same bowl or on the same cutting board that was used when the chicken was raw, you can re-inoculate the chicken, even after it has been cooked," Schaffner warns.

Chicken, or other foods, left out at room temperature or on picnic tables for substantial periods also can be recontaminated. Hot or very cold food is safest, but nicely in the middle -- the temperature most people like to consume food -- can be dangerous. It's also the temperature bacteria enjoy, Schaffner says.

"Keep things hot or cold until the last minute," he advises. "When storing foods to cool, the trick is to use shallow containers so the cooling will reach all parts of the vessel."

And have fun!

Originally published May 12, 2003
Medically updated May 12, 2005.

©2003-2005 WebMD Inc. All rights reserved.

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