Responsibility comes with knowledge.
If I know something, I’m responsible to apply what I know when making decisions. This is true of safe food handling, as it is in other areas. If I know what to do and what not to do to keep food safe to eat, and I decide to ignore what I know (just this once) because it’s easier or I’m in a hurry, then it’s my fault if something goes wrong.
Maybe it’s natural to gamble. I think that most of us do, when it comes to health. Knowing about practices that promote good health, such as being active every day or managing what and how much we eat, doesn’t necessarily translate into action. Likewise — and I am speaking from experience — we don’t always follow through on what we know about handling food safely.
Since incidents of food poisoning, or foodborne illness as it’s more formally called, only happen a small fraction of the times that people prepare and serve food without regard for safe handling methods, maybe we just like to play to odds.
There are two problems with this: we don’t always recognize illnesses that are caused by poor food handling, (sometimes the flu isn’t really the flu), and the consequences can be serious, especially for vulnerable people such as those who are pregnant, very young or elderly or whose immune systems are weakened by illness or therapies.
It’s easier to do what you think you should — whether that is to eat well, be active or handle food safely — when the environment is supportive. This is just as true at home as it is in public.
At this time of year, I do some barbecuing, and that’s where I noticed how easy it is to take food safety shortcuts. It made me think about how to make the environment a little more supportive.
The easiest would be to have a well-equipped outdoor kitchen, complete with a fridge and sink and storage, to keep all the required utensils and cookware close at hand. That happens in magazines and on cooking shows, but not in my life.
A more practical solution is to think ahead when grilling and move everything that’s required for the barbecue area before starting to cook. That addresses two of the principles that can be challenging when grilling foods outdoors: avoiding cross contamination and controlling temperature.
Cross contamination happens when uncooked meat, poultry or fish comes into contact, either directly or indirectly, with food that is ready to eat. I don’t think I know anyone who would put a cooked burger right up against a raw one on a platter. Any contamination on the uncooked burger or the platter could be shared with the cooked one in this situation.
Indirect contact is less obvious. What if I forget to bring out a second lifter or pair of tongs? Do I take a chance and pick up a cooked burger with the tongs that I used to turn it when it was only half-cooked? It looks clean, but it’s been in contact with raw ground beef. I am tempted, especially if dinner’s running late and there’s no one nearby to send in for a clean pair. Maybe if I hold the tongs over the hot grill for a minute it will be OK. If I had prepared by having a second pair of tongs handy before I started, there’d be no dilemma.
The same goes for having a meat thermometer to use. Checking the internal temperature of meat or poultry is a good way to prevent overcooking these foods, making them dry and tough.
It also is the best way to know that these foods are cooked enough to be safe to eat.
Burgers and sausages, both made from ground meat, are popular choices for grilling, and it is important to cook them to well-done, all the way through. Ground meat presents a special challenge because any contamination on the surface of the meat can be mixed through the entire mass of meat when it’s being ground.
There is a similar possibility of internal contamination when whole pieces of meat are pierced with a skewer or knife to allow a marinade to penetrate.
While it is considered safe to serve cuts of meat where the muscle is intact, such as steaks and roasts, to a lower internal temperature, ground beef, veal, pork or lamb must be cooked to an internal temperature of 71 C (160 F), and ground chicken or turkey to 74 C (165 F).
Here are recommended safe internal temperatures for larger cuts of meat. For beef, veal or lamb that is not ground, medium-rare is 63 C (145 F) medium is 71 C (160 F), and well done is 77 C (170 F). Cook pork pieces such as kebabs or chops or roasts or tenderloin to 71 C (160 F). Chicken or turkey pieces should be cooked to 74 C (165 F), and fish to 70 C (158 F).
A cooking thermometer is the most accurate way to check this. Having a thermometer beside the barbecue, and knowing the temperature for the food being cooked eliminates the need to guess.
People sometimes comment that I must be very organized. The opposite is true. When I write about how to get organized, it is because it’s something that I need to think about. In this case, it’s how to prepare myself so that there’s no temptation to take food safety shortcuts at the barbecue.
Margaret Prouse, a home economist, can be reached by writing her at RR#2, North Wiltshire, P.E.I., C0A 1Y0, or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.