A Very Serious Group of Illnesses

June 07, 2016

With the warm weather comes the tradition of barbecues, picnics, camping trips and outdoor eating.  For public health staff, this season brings increased cases of food poisoning! (Also known as foodborne illness.) In the summer, temperatures and humidity rise, creating the perfect environment for bacteria to grow faster.  Cooking techniques are different. Food is often cooked and eaten outdoors, without easy access to water for washing, refrigeration or thermometers for checking temperatures. Furthermore, food is often left out for several hours and then saved for future eating. An important rule: Food that has been out of refrigeration for more than 2 hours should be discarded. If the temperature is above 90 degrees, leftovers should be discarded after one hour. 

            Do you use a meat thermometer to tell when your burgers are cooked thoroughly? Do you put cooked meats back onto the same plate or into the same marinade that you used for the raw meat? These are important questions for reducing your risk of foodborne illness. A thermometer is the only way you can tell if your meat is cooked thoroughly. You should never put cooked meats on the same plate that held the raw meat or marinade.

            If you have ever been sick from foodborne illness, you know how sick it can make you. For many persons, foodborne illness is just an occurrence that causes misery for a day or so and then passes.  But for some persons, it can be severe enough to send them to the hospital or even become life threatening.  For those employed in food service, day care, or health care, foodborne illness can greatly affect your income, as you may be required to remain out of work until three stool samples prove negative. This can   sometimes take up to 6 months!  If your young child in diapers gets foodborne illness, he may be excluded from day care until stool specimens are negative.   

            Most foodborne illness is preventable.  Brush up on your “alfresco” technique.  (This information is taken from the USDA Fact Sheet on Barbecue Food Safety.)            

  • Coals should be very hot before cooking food.  For optional heat, burn them 20 to 30 minutes or until lightly coated with ash.  For gas grills, preheat on high until the grill is very hot. 
  • Cook all meats thoroughly.  This is the best protection against many bacteria.  Ground meats (beef, pork, lamb, and veal) should have a core temperature of 160°F, for at least 15 seconds.  Cooked meat that is gray or brown with clear juices (not pink) is usually cooked enough to kill some germs, but is not enough to kill E.coli. This visual test is not an absolute test of safety.  Larger cuts of beef, such as roasts, chops and steaks, may be cooked to 145°F for medium rare or 160°F for medium, with the temperature lasting 3 minutes. Game meats, poultry, ground poultry, stuffed poultry, and other meats and fish should be cooked to 165°F for at least 15 seconds. If you reheat cooked meats like hot dogs, grill to 165 degrees or until steaming hot. How do you know the temperature? Use a meat thermometer!   
  • If you precook (or partially cook) food prior to grilling, you should do this immediately before cooking outdoors.  Partially cooked meat or poultry provides an ideal opportunity for bacterial growth.
  • Marinate foods in the refrigerator. If you plan to use some of the marinade as a sauce on the cooked food, reserve a portion separately before adding it to raw meat, poultry or seafood. Don’t reuse marinade.   
  • Don’t use the same platter or utensils for the cooked food that you used for the raw food. This can contaminate your cooked food with bacteria.
  • Place raw meat on the lowest shelf in the refrigerator to avoid juices dripping on to other foods. 
  • Do not thaw meat and poultry on counter tops. 
  • Use soap and water to wash hands, utensils, cutting boards, and work surfaces that have been in contact with meat and poultry. 
  • Keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold.  While it is tempting to let foods sit out for hours, while you and your guests munch and graze, this can lead to an invitation for bacterial growth. 
  • Safe smoking of meats: Smoking can be done in a covered grill if a pan of water is placed beneath the meat or poultry on the grill. Meats can also be smoked in a smoker designed for outdoor cooking. Smoking is done much more slowly that grilling, so less tender meats benefit from this method and a natural smoke flavoring will permeate the meat. The temperature in the smoker should be maintained at 250 to 300 degrees F for safe cooking.
  • Pit roasting requires special instructions. A hardwood fire is built in the pit, requiring wood equal to about 2 ½ times the volume of the pit. The hardwood should burn until the wood reduces and the pit is half-filled with burning coals. This can require 4 to 6 hours. Cooking may require 10 to 12 hours or more and is difficult to estimate. A food thermometer must be used to determine the meat’s safety and doneness.
  • Lastly, when in doubt, throw it out!  Don’t take unnecessary chances. 

For answers to your questions on the food safety, call the USDA meat and poultry Hotline, 1-800-535-4555 or visit their website, USDA Food and Barbeque Safety For a packet of information on food safety and outdoor cooking, Quinnipiack Valley Health District residents (Bethany, Hamden, North Haven and Woodbridge) can call QVHD, 203 248-4528. Follow us on Twitter and Like us on Facebook. You can access them through our website, www.qvhd.org