The backyard barbecue is a quintessential American summer pastime, but it could also be ground zero for some serious food safety issues.
With a pool in one corner and a game of badminton in the other, the classic summer barbecue is a treasured and time-honored tradition for many of us. However, what you may not realize is that backyard barbecues are also one of the most dangerous places for your food-safety practices.
Indeed, out of all foodborne illness outbreaks, as many as 15 percent originate from home kitchens. Researchers believe that rate actually could be much higher considering the low rate of reporting and the sporadic nature of some of these food-poisoning incidents.
Norovirus and Salmonella are responsible for more than one-third of foodborne illness in the U.S. Poultry and leafy vegetables—two summer barbecue staples—are the conduit for as many as one in five illness outbreaks.
Despite these numbers, many people do not consider their homes to be a risky place for potential foodborne illness. Before you fire up the grill for summer holidays or weekend cooking, learn these nine ways you could be making your family, your guests, and yourself sick without even realizing it.
You Wash Meat in the Sink
This is an old habit you may need to break starting now. Washing chicken—or any raw protein for that matter—before marinating and cooking it is a serious bacteria hazard. What you can’t see, when you’re just hosing off your chicken halves, is the amount of bacterial “spray” you’re sending all over your sink, handles, countertop, towels, and more. In fact, bacteria can splash up to three feet from where you stand.
Washing raw poultry does not remove “germs.” That’s what the cooking process is for. Take any raw proteins you plan to cook from the grocery store container to the grill, or from the container to a marinating bag. Skip the wash.
You Don’t Wash Your Hands
Consider it common courtesy—or just a really smart practice—to wash your hands early and often when you’re responsible for the food prep at your barbecue.
New research from the USDA says cooks fail to wash their hands 98 percent of the time. That leads to cross contamination issues—think raw chicken to sink handle to drying towel—and it could be a primary culprit for the more than 48 million foodborne illnesses each year.
Washing your hands with soap and water is the best way to remove germs and prevent the spread of bacteria around your kitchen and grill. Don’t have a sink by your grill? Consider installing a hands-free camp sanitation kit at your barbecue spot.
You Go Back for Round Two Late in the Day
If you sit and chat after your first plate and decide to go back through the line later, you could be setting yourself up for some serious bacteria blunders. Food is no longer safe to eat if it’s been sitting out for more than two hours (or more than one hour if temps are above 90°F). Bacteria grow rapidly at these temperatures.
Help hosts store all food that needs refrigeration as soon as guests have completed their first pass. That way, no one has to worry about coming back for seconds and leaving with a serious case of tummy trouble.
You Don’t Clean Your Grill
Odds are, you cleaned your toilet more recently than you cleaned your grill, right? A British study found that grills contain 1.7 million microbes per square centimeter. That’s more than twice the bacteria coverage of the average toilet. Yum!
It makes sense—food particles cling to the grill grates when you cook—but that doesn’t mean you have to take the potential hazard lying down. Give your grill grates a deep clean with soap, a scouring pad, and water. Scrape any gunk burned to the bottom of the grill with plastic straight edge, and rub down the exterior of the grill with an ammonia-based cleaning solution.
You can also let the heat of the flames disinfect your grill, but you need to let the grill “preheat” for at least 20 to 30 minutes for this step to be effective. It’s better, in fact, to clean your grill with your hands and then use this burn-off-the-bacteria step as backup.
WATCH: How to Clean a Grill
You Use the Same Tools to Put Meat on the Grill As You Do to Flip
At this point, you’ve probably trained yourself out of the bad habit of using the same plate to serve cooked hamburgers as you did to bring the meat to the grill. According to research, almost 75 percent of people do know to keep their raw ingredients separate from their read-to-eat foods. However, one thing may slip past you—your tongs.
If you use the same tongs to flip chicken breasts or burgers that you did to place the items on the grill to begin with, you’re possibly contaminating each food item every time you touch it. Yes, cooking the meat will kill germs and bacteria, but you’re adding potential problems if you don’t use clean utensils. In addition to washing your hands often, you should give your important flippers, turners, and grabber (those handy utensils, that is) a wash with soap and water frequently, too.
You Aren’t Measuring Meat Temps
The same USDA study that discovered the majority of home cooks aren’t washing their hands enough—or at all—discovered most people don’t know how to use meat thermometers, or they don’t use them at all. Another study found that less than a quarter of home cooks validate their cooking temperature with a thermometer.
Using thermometers is a sure way to make certain you’re cooking meat to the correct—and bacteria-killing—stage. But you can’t rely on your good senses or your eyes to tell you when you’ve reached that point. You need a thermometer.
Keep an easy-to-use device on you at all times, and use it frequently. Those bluetooth-enabled temperature gauges may look sexy, but they’re not necessarily the easiest to deploy in the heat of the moment. A simple device like the Classic Super-Fast Thermapen is a worthy investment.
You Don’t Wash Melons Before Cutting
Watermelon, cantaloupe, and other juicy melons are a delicious summertime dessert, but they could pose serious bacteria issues if you aren’t careful.
Cutting into a melon without washing it thoroughly could introduce bacteria from the growing process that’s found on the rind to the flesh, or the part you eat.
A recent study recommends that consumers use a three-percent hydrogen peroxide solution to wash cantaloupes prior to cutting. You can find this product at almost every pharmacy and grocery store.
If you don't have that product handy, use soap and water. Rub the melon down well, and make sure it doesn’t touch any other surfaces (except a clean cutting board) in your kitchen before slicing and transferring to a plate for serving. Also, be sure to keep it stored in a fridge or cooler before serving to slow bacteria growth.
You Let Flames Flare
Multiple studies have shown a potential relationship between charred meat and an increased risk of cancer. Heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) are two chemicals that form when flames burn and char pork, beef, fish, and poultry. High temperatures, like those that occur in grills when flames flare up, are responsible. In research, those chemicals changed DNA that could increase a person’s risk for cancer.
Try to keep meat out of direct flames. A spray bottle of water nearby is handy for immediate flame fighting. If you can’t move the food to another section of the grill, immediately take everything off until the flare up is under control.
You Don’t Wash Reusable Totes
Those cloth bags from the grocery store—and every event you’ve attended the last five years—are handy for toting foods from house to bar or car to picnic site, but they may be harboring a very dirty secret: loads of bacteria.
One study found that only three percent of people regularly wash these reusable grocery bags. That’s a problem because several foodborne illness risks are tied to those totes. Bacteria from meat, raw ingredients, and other things you carry can stick around in the fibers of the bags longer than they would in a plastic bag. That means they’re easily transferred each time you use them.
Keep specially marked bags reserved for raw ingredients, and don’t reuse them at the end of the day. Toss all the bags straight into the washing machine on hot water the moment you get home and unpack.