Food Safety, Knife Safety, and Grill Safety
"Meat is expensive. It is costly and embarrassing to overcook it. Friends and family are priceless. It is not nice to kill them." Meathead
Cooking can be dangerous. Fire, knives, microbes, oh my! A little knowledge and a lot of common sense can get you out alive.
That's right, people can die from some types of foodborne pathogens. Since most raw meat and poultry have been contaminated by harmful microbes in the air, on the farm, during butchering, and in the packaging process, it is helpful to think of all raw meat as pathogenic. Salmonella, Escherichia coli O157:H7, Shigella, and Listeria are the most common contaminants, and even Clostridium botulinum can join the party if you are not careful. They are killed when cooked properly. Below is an ounce of prevention.
In addition, improper food handling makes contamination from your hands, cutting boards, knives a major problem. Understanding the pitfalls will go a long way, and no advice is more important than "Don't be a dope, use the soap."
The Center for Disease Control (CDC) estimates that in 2011 roughly 1 in 6 Americans got sick from foodborne illnesses (often mistakenly called "stomach flu"), 128,000 are hospitalized, and 3,000 die. And nobody knows how many millions of dollars were wasted on overcooked food. Cooking without a good digital thermometer and a good temperature guide is like driving without a speedometer. Get one. Now.
- Bacteria multiply rapidly at room temperature. An E-coli population can double every hour at room temp. Uncooked meat must be kept cold. Make grocery shopping your last stop when you're out running errands so groceries do not sit in you car any longer than they have to.
- Don't push the cart with meat, dairy, or eggs around the store for 30 minutes. Make the meat counter the last stop. Get the dry goods and veggies first.
- Keep the meat separate from other foods in your cart and when bagged, and have meat bagged in plastic. Put meat in the coolest part of your car. If your grocery store is more than 30 minutes from home, on hot days you should bring an insulated box or bag for carrying refrigerated products.
- Pay attention to the dates on packaging. "Sell By" date tells the store when to remove products from the shelf. "Best If Used By" or "Use By" dates tell you when you should eat or freeze the product. These dates are not related to safety, just quality. And you can no longer rely on the color of meat if it is prepackaged because some grocers now sell red meat packed in a carbon monoxide atmosphere to prevent browning. Remember, the dates are meaningless once the package has been opened and exposed to air and bacteria.
- Often the newest stock is placed near the back of displays. Nuff said.
- Don't buy cans that are dented, leaking, or bulging.
- When you buy new cooking utensils, clean them thoroughly before using them in order to remove any oil, grease, or metal shavings from the manufacturing process.
- When you get home, get cold products into the fridge right away. And listen to your wife when she tells you to quit leaving the door open.
- Keep a thermometer in the fridge and the freezer. Make sure your refrigerator is between 32 and 40°F. Shoot for about 38°F. Your freezer should be 0°F or below.
- FIFO means first in, first out. That means if you buy a slab of ribs on Monday, and then they go on sale on Wednesday so you buy another slab, cook the slab you bought on Monday first. FIFO also applies to canned foods and dry goods. Write the date of freezing on frozen food packages with an indelible marker. Put a date on leftovers too. In fact, dating everything is a good idea.
- Cooked foods in general should be used within a week if they are stored in the refrigerator, regardless of how they have been cooked, even if they have been smoked. Demesne.info is a website with more on storing specific foods.
- Flour and grains attract small insects and the fats in them can go rancid. Store them in airtight containers in the cool and dark. If you find moths in the pantry, you may have to throw everything out. These buggers are hard to get rid of once they show up.
- Keep spices out of direct sunlight. Cool and dark is best.
- If you marinate or brine your meat, it must be kept in a refrigerator or cooler.
- Anything touching raw meat becomes contaminated and must be properly cleaned. Use the bleach solution on anything except food. The recipe is described in the sidebar article. Lemon juice, salt, and vinegar will not do the job.
- Wrap raw meat tightly and put it in pans or on platters with side dishes. Store raw meat so it cannot drip on other foods.
- Wash kitchen towels often. Microwave damp sponges for two minutes frequently or run them through the dishwasher.
- After you rinse meat in the sink you must wash the sink thoroughly. Soaps with bleach such as Comet are good for cleaning sinks counters, and cutting boards. Use the bleach solution described in the sidebar article.
- Do not carry raw meat over the floor without having a plate under it especially if you have young children.
- Do not use a fork or the Jaccard blade tenderizer to puncture meat and tenderize it unless you will be cooking it past 160°F. These devices puncture the surface and plunge into the meat cutting through tough fibers. In the process they also push any surface contamination down into the center of the meat. If you are cooking Texas style brisket or beef ribs up to 180°F or more, as they are usually cooked, no prob. But if you are cooking a steak to 130°F for medium rare, then you risk contamination and a tummy ache or worse.
- If you are cooking outdoors or at a competition, a cooler with ice is a necessity as is the bleach solution described in the sidebar article.
- It is best to handle raw meat with rubber or latex gloves. Pull off gloves by grabbing the cuffs and turning them inside out so the outside of the gloves doesn't contaminate your hands.
- You may handle uncooked food with your bare hands but you must first wash your hands past your wrists thoroughly with hot water and soap for 20 seconds by rubbing them vigorously. That's about the time it takes to sing the "Happy Birthday" song. Pay close attention to the areas under your fingernails. Rinse them thoroughly, dry them with paper towels, and throw the towels away. When you are done handling meat, you must wash and dry your hands again. Do not handle the refrigerator door handle, drawer knobs, or the faucets with contaminated hands.
- If you have a cold or any contagious illness, you should not handle food. Let someone else do the cooking. If you absolutely must cook, wear rubber or latex gloves and a mask.
- Pet water bowls should be dumped outdoors or in the toilet, not the sink.
- Don't cook frozen meat. Click here to read how to defrost your meat safely.
- Discard any cans that are leaking or bulging.
- Wash the top of beer and soft drink cans. And quit drinking from the milk bottle!
- You must not bring cooked meat to the table on a platter that carried raw meat out to the grill. Wash all dishes, knives, tongs, and brushes that have touched raw meat in hot soapy water, preferably a dishwasher. This means that if you use tongs to put raw meat on the grill, you must wash them before you use it to turn the meat.
- Use only cold marinades. If you had to heat your marinade to make it, let it cool before putting meat in it.
- Occasionally use a bleach solution to wash anything that you touch a lot like the refrigerator door, oven door, cabinet knobs.
- Wash fruits and veggies even if you plan to peel them because contamination on the skins can get on your hands, knife, and cutting board.
- Cooking must be done at a temperature of 175°F or higher unless you are cooking sous vide.
- Cook to the proper temperature. I don't care what the cookbooks say, you cannot tell if meat is cooked properly by its color or the color of its juices. This is especially important for chicken, turkey, ground meats, and sausage if it is not precooked. They are more susceptible to contamination. When the meat is done, if you aren't serving it within 30 minutes, you must keep it so the surface is warmer than 150°F. When handling cooked foods you should use tongs or wear gloves. If cooked meat falls on the ground, for any length of time, it should be discarded or washed and then heated to above 150°F on the surface. The 5-second rule is a myth. To be sure you are safe you really really must have a good digital thermometer.
- Be sure to clean the probe on your thermometer after you are done using it.
- Even if the meat is browning, the juices bubbling to the surface may be contaminated. You can use a marinade as a mop or a basting sauce, but remember, painting meat with a brush and dipping it into a marinade or sauce contaminates the meat, brush, and marinate. You cannot use a used marinade as a baste during the last 30 minutes of cooking or as a dipping sauce at the table.
- If you wish to use marinades or bastes as a sauce, you must bring them to a rolling boil for at least a minute.
- Be sure to discard marinades or mopping solutions after you're done cooking. They are contaminated with raw meat juices. You cannot save them for future use.
- The best way to baste or apply a barbecue sauce is to spoon, pour, or spritz the liquid onto the meat. Especially if you leave it sitting out during the cook. If you must use a brush, use one that is easy to clean and sterilize such as the new silicon brushes.
- So you don't waste sauce by dipping the brush into the bottle and contaminate the sauce in the bottle, pour the sauce you need into a cup or bowl and dip your brush or spoon into the cup or bowl.
- If you are a guest in someone's home and you see them using an unsafe method such as putting cooked chicken on a platter that has had raw meat, politely but firmly speak up!
- Avoid burning food, and if you do, cut off the burned parts. In addition to tasting bad, burned food may be bad for your health. Read my article Does grilling pose a cancer risk?
- Do not leave leftovers on the table for more than an hour. Refrigerate them promptly on the lower, cooler shelves. If you have leftovers, divide them into small portions so they cool quickly. Do not stack meat while cooling.
- Use uncooked meat, veggies, and leftovers within three days and one week is the max. Look carefully at anything that has been aging in the fridge and if it has any sign of mold or slime, throw it out. Smell anything that has been kept in the fridge for more than three days.
- And this very good advice from my friend Brad Barrett at GrillGrates: Be careful with the adult beverages. Pay attention to what you are doing. Brad claims he once hit the daily double: A hangover and Montezuma's revenge. And he is sure that one led to the other.
- Your motto: When in doubt, throw it out.
Cutting board safety
- There is a lively debate over which is safer, wood or plastic cutting boards. Science says both can be safe if they are cleaned thoroughly. Scrub them well with warm soapy water, rinse, and then scrub again with a chlorine based cleanser and a brush. Plastic boards can go into the dishwasher, where they get exposed to high heat and detergent. For that reason, I recommend plastic.
- If you do not have a dishwasher, use a bleach solution to clean your board.
- Keep one board for meats only.
- When boards get deep cuts, sand them smooth or throw them out.
- There is no real advantage to leaving food sit at room temp before cooking, and there is a risk. In fact, smoke sticks to cold food better than warm.
- Microbes do not penetrate whole muscle meats very well, so the interior of a fresh steak is pretty safe. Any bugs on the surface are killed instantly in high heat. But chicken is different. When chicken is processed, it is usually dunked in warm water to loosen the feathers. The water should be hot, should contain antibacterials, and should be changed often, but it can become contaminated easily with salmonella, especially since the animal hasn't been eviscerated yet. During and after the gutting process, chicken meat is often in contact with water and potential sources of contamination. Chicken meat is also more porous that beef. As a result, one should always handle chicken as if it is contaminated. Leaving it sit out at room temp is very dangerous. It should go directly from fridge to cooking, and all surfaces that are in contact with chicken must be cleaned thoroughly, preferably with a cleanser that has chlorine, such as Comet.
- Be alert and focused when using knives and sharp objects. Beverage alcohol and knives are a dangerous combo.
- Use sharp knives.
- Do not gesture and waive with knives in your hands.
- A damp towel or paper towel under a cutting board can help keep it from shifting.
- Make sure you have plenty of elbow room when cutting.
- If you drop a knife, get your feet out of the way and don't try to catch it! Wait for the knife to stop moving before trying to pick it up.
- Never open cans with a knife. I don't care what you saw on Iron Chef.
- Never use a knife as a screwdriver.
- Always use a cutting board. Never cut anything that is in your hand.
- Make sure handles of pots and pans are not sticking out over the edge of a table or counter where people walking by can bump them.
- Do not fill pots to the brim.
- If you put a wet liquid into hot oil it will spit hot oil at high velocity right at your eyes with deadly accuracy.
- Keep pets away from the front of the stove.
Grill, smoker, and oven safety
- Keep a fire extinguisher nearby. Water will only spread oil fires and may not extinguish grease fires. The best extinguisher is rated ABC (see sidebar).
- Never cook with grills or smokers indoors or in garages. They produce invisible carbon monoxide and smoke that can kill you.
- Don't keep your grill close to your house or deck railings. Beware of overhanging roof lines or trees.
- Never use gas, paint thinner, solvents, or kerosene to start your charcoal. Chimneys or electric coil starters are the best way to start coals, but if you use charcoal starter fluid, once the coals are smoldering never squirt them with more fluid. The flame can climb up the stream and set you on fire.
- Don't cook near gasoline or other flamables. Keep propane tanks at least two feet from the burners.
- On gas grills, always lift the lid when you ignite the burners. A gas buildup under the hood could blow it open and flash in your face.
- On kamados and eggs, the lid seal is very tight so when you open it, air rushes in and it can flash flame in your face. Stand back and open the lid slowly.
- Store propane cylinders outdoors in an upright position.
- If you smell gas, turn off the grill immediately.
- Handle hot grills, coals, and hot liquids with respect. Be alert. No horseplay near cookers.
- Keep children and pets away from grills and smokers, uncooked meat, hot liquids, and sharp objects.
- Use potholders and/or insulated gloves. Insulated gloves are best.
- Do not discard ash until the coals are thoroughly dead. Let them sit overnight or dump water on them before you put them in your trash can.
- Bare feet, sandals, flip-flops, and loose clothes are dangerous around grills.
- Don't put small grills on flammable surfaces or glass tables.
- Before you use a new grill, fire it up on high and let it run for about 30 minutes to burn off any oil or grease or packing materials from the manufacturing process or from shipping. Click here to read more about Seasoning a New Grill or Smoker.
- Save the grill manual and remember where you put it.
- If you have long hair, tie it in a pony tail.
- Stay sober when around the grill.
- Heat the grates to high before cooking and carbonize grease and scraps from your last cook. Then scrub them off (read my article on grate cleaning). If you use a wire brush, beware that bristles can come out and people die from wire bristles that lodge in their digestive system. Before the food goes on, use a damp cloth and tongs to wipe off the grates and visually inspect them.
Here's how to make safe burgers.
Undercooked ground meat and sausage can kill. It can happen to you or someone you love. In 1993 four children died from hamburgers contaminated by the virulent bacteria pathogen Escherichia coli O157:H7 purchased at Jack in the Box restaurants. According to health officials as many as 70,000 Americans fall ill from E-coli O157:H7 each year, most of them as a result of tainted hamburger meat. According to USDA, "the very young, the very old, and those with immune systems that have been weakened by cancer, kidney disease, and other illnesses are most at risk and vulnerable to illnesses associated with contaminated food." If someone shows symptoms of illness, do not hesitate, get to the emergency room in a hurry.
We'll call this common bug E-coli for short from now on, although there are many other strains of E-coli that are harmless. In addition to E-coli, Salmonella, Campylobacter jejuni, Listeria monocytogenes, and Staphylococcus aureus, can be found in ground beef and can cause illness. They cannot be seen or smelled. There are also spoilage bacteria that are harmless to humans, but deteriorate the meat's quality.
In meat, E-coli comes from fecal matter in the intestines of the cow. It gets on the surface of the meat during butchering from (1) fecal matter that is on the hide because feed lots are crowded with cattle and their waste, (2) fecal matter in the intestines if they are accidentally sliced open during butchering, a common occurrence (3) fecal matter that spilled from intestines onto the floor of the slaughterhouse or packing shop, or (4) from knives, grinders, tables other equipment, from other meat, or hands that have come in contact with fecal matter.
Contaminated meat then is transported across several state lines in refrigerated trucks that are not always at the proper temp, unloaded into butcher shops and can often sit on the dock or the warehouse for too long, and then moved to cool rooms that may not be cold enough because people don't like it too cold when they work.
E-coli O157:H7 is primarily a problem in ground meats, not steaks. It is found only on the surface of the steaks. They do not work their way into the muscle or fat far beyond the surface. They die rapidly when you cook a steak's surface past 160°F, even if the interior is bloody rare. If your grill is even at a low 225°F, the exterior of a steak will hit 160°F fairly quickly and be safe. The problem arises when meat is ground. Then the outside gets inside and rare burgers or medium rare burgers carry risk with them because they are not cooked to 160°F. Because grinding is how the bug gets into the meat, E-coli is a problem for all ground meats and sausages unless they have been pre-cooked like hot dogs or treated with preservatives.
If the butcher's grinder is not in a cool room, contamination on it can grow rapidly (e-coli doubles in 20 minutes). Then we have to hope that the butcher's grinder is kept clean. They are usually old and the older models are hard to clean properly, with lots of nooks and crannies for contamination to hide in. Then it goes into an open top display case and can sit there for hours, and the trays on the bottom may be there for days. They then sit in uncalibrated home refrigerators for days sometimes.
Industry and government inspection for E-coli is not very thorough. The detection process is expensive, there are not enough inspectors, and USDA inspects only meat headed for interstate commerce. Some meat is inspected by state inspectors, and most is not inspected at all. If your trusted grocer is sold contaminated meat and grinds it, it can contaminate the grinder and all the meat ground that day. Knowing your butcher is not a guarantee of safety.
It is important to remember that "sell by" dates are no guarantee of safety. USDA recommends that you store ground meat at 40°F or lower and that you cook or freeze it within two days after purchase. E-coli does not reproduce at cold temps.
Now here's an interesting question: Some fast food joints promote the fact that their burgers are never frozen. So which would you rather eat, a burger that is frozen right after grinding and shipped to a franchise three states away, or a burger that is not frozen and shipped three states away?
If you want rare burgers, there are some options:
(1) Buy irradiated beef. My research tells me irradiated beef is perfectly safe and healthy. But it is hard to find because a lot of people are scared of radiation in all forms (except when they get their teeth and bones X-rayed, and that's a LOT higher dosage). Click this link for more information on irradiation from Omaha Steaks.
(2) Sterilize the meat. Food scientists say that if you dip a piece steak in boiling water (212°F) for 10 seconds before grinding it yourself, it is made safe. I have tried it, and although the exterior turns gray, it grinds well and makes fine flavorful rare patties.
(3) Sous vide. You can also have rare burgers by using the sous vide method of slow cooking the patties in a vacuum bag in an immersion bath of 131°F water for two hours.
(4) Perfect control. If you had a really accurate thermometer and perfect control over your grill temp, you might be able to grill a big fat burger at, say 225°F, when it hits say, 125°F, crank the heat back to 135°F, hold it there for 38.3 minutes, and then sear the exterior on high heat for flavor.
Ask yourself this first
If you use a high fat blend and patty and season it properly, if you add condiments, onion, lettuce, tomato, and a buttered bun, most people cannot tell the diff between a 135°F burger and a 160°F burger if they are blindfolded.
If you do not have sterile meat, and you are healthy and not too young or old or immune compromised, you can take the risk of eating a rare burger. Go ahead and roll the dice. Probably safer than riding in a NY cab. But if your kids or granny can't tell the diff, why risk it?
This page was revised 5/7/2012
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