As barbecue season heats up across the country, a food safety expert is warning Canadians of bacterial hazards that may accompany the smoky aromas and sizzling grills.
Whether it’s undercooked meat, improperly cleaned grills or cross-contamination, there are many ways one can get sick with food-borne illnesses, such as salmonella and E. coli, during a backyard feast.
“The risk of contracting food-borne illness can spike during summer months because many people don’t handle food safely during the barbecue season, whether in the kitchen or on the grill,” said Lawrence Goodridge, professor at the Canadian Research Institute for Food Safety at the University of Guelph.
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As an example, he explained that people may find themselves juggling multiple errands before a barbecue and prioritize a trip to the grocery store first. But on a hot day, this can be dangerous, as leaving perishable items like meat in a hot car creates a breeding ground for bacteria.
“Also in the summer, we tend to have bigger get-togethers with people. So if there is contaminated food, then that can lead to more people getting sick,” Lawrence added.
Every year a total of about four million Canadians are affected by a food-borne illness, resulting in 11,600 hospitalizations and 238 deaths, according to Health Canada.
To safeguard against these hidden dangers, Lawrence recommends following a few simple steps to reduce the risk of food-related illnesses.
Before firing up the grill, it’s important to clean it thoroughly to remove any residue from previous use, Lawrence said, adding this shouldn’t be done using a wire-based brush because small pieces can break off and get into the food.
Using bleach is unnecessary for cleaning the barbecue as it carries the risk of potentially seeping into the food. Instead, he said heat from the barbecue can help kill lurking bacteria.
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Ensuring proper hand hygiene is crucial in preventing the spread of bacteria, especially after handling uncooked meat. Health Canada advises people to thoroughly wash their hands with soap and warm water for a minimum of 20 seconds after coming into contact with raw meat.
Also, any utensils, cutting boards and countertops should be washed with hot soapy water, especially when preparing foods that will be cooked like meats and seafood, the regulator stated on its website.
Cross-contamination between meat and vegetables is a major issue that happens during barbeque season, Lawrence explained.
“People will take hamburgers out, put them on a plate and take it out to the grill,” he said. “And then without cleaning that place, they start putting the lettuce and tomatoes on it. And now there’s harmful bacteria that you just transferred to the lettuce and tomatoes that you are not going to cook.”
This is a major way people get sick, he added.
Bacteria such as E. coli, salmonella and campylobacter are killed by heat, which is why raw meat must be cooked properly to a safe internal temperature, Lawrence said.
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“Another major problem that happens in barbecue season is that meats are not cooked to the proper temperature,” he said.
Meats like ground beef must be cooked all the way through. While intact pieces of meat, such as steak, often have harmful bacteria on the outer surface, grinding the meat for hamburger patties can result in the dispersion of any bacteria throughout the entire patty, Lawrence warned.
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“A number of people get sick, and typically children get sick, during the summer because the hamburgers are not cooked well done … if there are bacteria there, they can survive,” Lawrence said.
Colour alone is also not a reliable indicator that meat is safe to eat. Meat can turn brown before all the bacteria are killed, so use a digital food thermometer to be sure, he advised.
In terms of safe temperatures, Health Canada recommends the following:
- Hamburgers made of ground beef, pork or lamb should be cooked to an internal temperature of 71 C (160 F).
- Burgers made of ground chicken or turkey should be cooked to an internal temperature of 74 C (165 F).
- Whole poultry should be cooked to an internal temperature of 85 C (185 F).
- Poultry pieces (breasts, legs, etc.) should be cooked to an internal temperature of 74 C (165 F).
Bacteria multiply fastest at temperatures between 4 C and 60 C, so chilling food properly is one of the most effective ways to reduce the risk of illness.
Lawrence calls this the “danger zone,” adding that during backyard get-togethers, people may leave food out for long periods of time.
“Basically, the rule of thumb is you want to keep cold foods cold and hot foods hot,” Lawrence explained. “So if the food’s supposed to be cold, it needs to be kept in the fridge below 4 C. If the food is supposed to be hot, it needs to be kept hotter than 60 C.”
Cooked leftovers, he said, should always be refrigerated within two hours.
When it comes to thawing meat, it should be done in the refrigerator and not the counter, Health Canada warned. Sealed packages can be thawed in cold water and you can use the microwave for defrosting if the food item is placed immediately on the grill. Meat should be completely thawed before grilling so that it cooks more evenly.
If meat is stored in a cooler before barbecuing, Health Canada also recommends making sure the cooler is kept cold with ice packs, keeping it out of direct sunlight and avoiding opening it too often.
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