THIS ARTICLE WAS UPDATED ON 3/28/2020 AND AGAIN ON 3/1/2021 TO INCLUDE THE LATEST INFO ABOUT CORONAVIRUS
Fire, knives, pathogens, oh my! People can die from improper cooking. But the risk is very low a little common sense and an ounce of prevention.
The Center for Disease Control (CDC) estimates that in one recent year roughly one in six Americans got sick from foodborne illnesses, 128,000 were hospitalized, and 3,000 died. The bad guys are certain types of bacteria, viruses, and parasites. If you don’t want the details, let’s make it easy: Cooking kills the bad guys. Cook food properly and you have nothing to worry about. Raw food is just plain simply riskier. All raw food and that includes salads. Read on if you want details.
Viruses are much rarer in foods than bacteria, but with the coronavirus pandemic upon us, let’s start there.
Coronavirus/COVID-19 is primarily a respiratory disease. It mostly infects the nose, throat, and lungs. Almost all infections come by inhaling droplets of moisture from the breath of other people who have been infected. The risk is greater the more viruses you inhale. The risk can be lowered by limiting your proximity to other people and by using a mask. Normal painter’s masks can prevent you from spraying and can reduce the amount of spray you inhale, but they can’t stop all the viruses. Masks labeled N95 are more effective.
You can get sick by touching something that has the virus on it such as a grocery cart or an apple, and then transfer it to your respiratory system by touching the inside of your nose, eyes, or mouth, or by eating food handled by someone who has the virus. The data says the risk is low from touching things, especially if you wash your hands often, and keep them out of your mouth, eyes, and nose.
Food is not a likely carrier even if you eat with your hands. If the preparer washed his or her hands and didn’t sneeze or cough on the food, there is likely to be a very small load (quantity of bugs) even if the preparer is sick. Keep in mind that food goes down one pipe and air down another so if the food is contaminated, it is possible it could get into your lungs because you breathe when you eat, but the risk is considered to be very very low.
Hepatitis A virus (HAV) and norovirus
Hepatitis A virus (HAV) and norovirus are the far more common, and they usually come from human fecal matter, often as a result of poor handwashing. To kill them, we must cook at 194°F for 90 seconds. Cooking rarely goes to this temperature so the best plan is prevention by practicing proper sanitation, especially handwashing and wiping surfaces with a chlorine based sanitizer.
Microbes are everywhere. But the air, water, and soil around us are teeming with bacteria and virus cells. There are more microbes in your body than all other cells combined and they may weigh up to three pounds. Most bacteria are friendly and many, called probiotics, are beneficial. Alas, some of them, called pathogens, are not so friendly, especially Bacillus cereus, Campylobacter jejuni, Clostridium botulinum, Listeria monocytogenes, Salmonella, STEC (Shiga toxin producing E-coli), Shigella, Staphylococcus aureus, and Vibrio. They are hard to trace because they can often take a day to grow in your gut before they knock you down, so figuring out what it was in the fridge or if it was the restaurant lunch is hard to do. Here are details on the most common pathogenic bacteria and how to avoid them.
Danger. This bacteria is the most common cause of diarrhea in the US, often bloody, often accompanied by nausea and vomiting, fever, and abdominal cramps. Symptoms usually start within two to five days after exposure and last about seven days. Birds often carry it and their droppings often contaminate fruits and vegetables in the field. It is estimated that 1/3 of all chickens are contaminated before cooking.
Prevention. Do not eat raw eggs unless they are pasteurized. Do not eat raw cookie dough. Wash your hands thoroughly after handling eggs and poultry.
Risk. Affects more than 1.3 million people in the US every year. A single drop of uncooked chicken juice can contain enough campylobacter to sicken a healthy adult.
Scariest of them all. Beware of Flavored and infused oils, cold smoked meats, and even foil wrapped potatoes.
Danger. This bacterium, shown here under a microscope, produces an extremely dangerous neurotoxin that can be fatal. Although rare, botulism causes nerve failure, nausea, diarrhea, fatigue, headaches, double vision, paralysis, dry mouth, respiratory failure. Bot is anaerobic. It grows only where no oxygen is present.
It is a funny critter because it forms spores, survival capsules of a sort, and can remain dormant for years. Bot forms spores in air or under stress. Spores are like tiny fortresses that protect bacteria under extreme conditions, even boiling temperatures. Bot spores are common in the soil, so things like garlic and potatoes, which grow underground, often carry spores. Interestingly, bot does not grow in the presence of oxygen, but in a can or submerged in oil, where there is no air, it can thrive and produce its deadly toxin. There is no visible sign of botulinum growth. Cooking will destroy the toxin, but not the spores which need to be exposed to 250°F of wet heat under pressure for 3 minutes to kill them. For this reason you should avoid bottled infused oils such as the bottle of garlic oil they put on tables in Italian restaurants or the pepper oil is common in Asian restaurants. Throwing raw garlic in a sous vide bag actually increases the risk. Commercial garlic oil that has been treated with the addition of phosphoric acid or citric acid are less risky. If I want garlic or pepper or lemon flavor in my oil, I infuse it on the spot and use it right away. I use tarragon infused oil in my grilled corn on the cob for instance.
Food safety scientists warn that if you wrap potatoes in foil you must cook and consume them promptly. Holding them in foil, either before or after cooking, is considered risky. Besides, it just makes the flesh mealy. Baked potatoes are better if you don’t foil them. And safer.
Prevention. Foods that have caused deaths among adults include home canned foods, cold smoked meats, infused oils, and even potatoes wrapped in foil. Experts warn not give honey to infants under one year old because there is a possibility of spores in low levels and infants have no resistance (don’t let your kids eat dirt either!). If you can or ferment foods, follow instructions carefully. Beware of dented cans. Do not vacuum seal mushrooms and things that grow underground like garlic, onions, carrots, potatoes. To prevent spores from activating, do not keep foods in your refrigerator longer than 3 weeks before or after cooking and make sure your fridge is at or below 38°F. You need acidity and pressure cooking at temperatures in the range of 250°F to eradicate spores.
Risk. Foodborne botulism averages about 40 cases per year with one death. The good news is that eating spores is low risk. The acidity of your digestive system will likely kill them, and even if they should somehow activate, you will likely excrete them before they can do any harm.
Danger. Common in many foods, especially poultry and raw dairy products, particularly unpasteurized soft cheeses. It can often be found on raw vegetables contaminated in the field by birds, rodents, and other animals. Listeriosis includes flu-like symptoms including fever, nausea, diarrhea. Risk is higher in pregnant women, infants, elderly, and the immune compromised. Can cause miscarriage and fetal death. Symptoms may not appear for a week after eating. Can grow rapidly with and without oxygen. Does not form spores.
Prevention. Wash fresh produce thoroughly and avoid consuming raw milk, dairy products made with raw milk, and undercooked foods.
Risk. About 1,600 people in the US get listeriosis every year.
Danger. Very common in poultry and eggs. Tests by Consumer Reports found salmonella in 90% of all chicken breasts. Cannot grow without air and it can easily survive freezing. Causes fever, abdominal cramps, diarrhea usually within 12 to 72 hours. Symptoms usually last 4 to 7 days, and most people recover without treatment although occasionally the diarrhea can be so sever that hospitalization is required.
Prevention. Do not eat raw eggs unless they are pasteurized. Do not eat raw cookie dough. Wash your hands thoroughly after handling eggs and poultry.
Risk. Salmonella from food causes about 1.1 million illnesses in the US every year, about 19,000 hospitalizations, and 380 deaths. Some people develop permanent arthritis as a result of infection.
Shiga toxin Escherichia coli (STEC or E. coli)
Danger. Found in the digestive systems of humans and other animals some strains of E. coli produce shiga toxins that can be fatal but more frequently cause extreme illnesses including kidney failure, serious cramps, bloody stool, nausea, fever that can last a week. The most common cause is E. coli O157:H7. Commonly found on the surface of muscle meats from contamination in the slaughterhouse from fecal matter on animal hides or from intestines accidentally cut open. It can also be found in raw milk from contamination on teats and unwashed produce from contaminated water. Can grow in the presence of oxygen or not. Symptoms usually appear within 3 to 4 days but can occur sooner or later.
Prevention. Whole muscle meats are low risk if the surface is cooked, but ground meats must be cooked to 155°F because surface contamination is pushed inside during the grinding process.
Risk. An estimated 265,000 cases occur each year in the US.
Danger. Causes diarrhea and dysentery which can be deadly. Starts a day or two after infection and can last a week. Common causes are untreated water in rivers, lakes, puddles, handling diapers, produce exposed to infected water, and poor handwashing.
Prevention. Beware of vegetables fertilized with animal waste, especially organic produce grown with improperly handled fertilizer. Do not eat raw cookie dough.
Risk. Causes 500,000 cases of diarrhea a year in the US.
Danger. Staph is found on human skin, especially in and on the nose. It is found in foods handled by people with poor hygiene practices, and in hospitals from improper sanitation. Symptoms include fever, abdominal cramps, nausea, diarrhea, pus and blood in stools. Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) cannot be killed by common antibiotics and is especially pernicious.
Risk. According to CDC, 119,000 people suffered from bloodstream staph infections in the US in 2017 and nearly 20,000 died. It is unclear how many came from food, but the germ is easily transferred via food.
Danger. Vibrio grows in warm salt water and brackish, usually from May through October. The greatest risk is from raw oysters and other raw seafood. Symptoms are cramping, nausea, fever, chills, and diarrhea and they show up within a day and last only 3 to 4 days. Few people die.
Risk. 45,000 illnesses each year in the US although some of them may come from swallowing contaminated water while swimming.
Practically all rice has some Bacillus cereus in it. As the rice is cooked, most of the cells die. But not all of them. A few can form spores. If you eat them, chances are you won’t get sick because the population is so small. But if the rice sits around at room temp for a few hours, perhaps the rice pudding at the church picnic, the spores can spring back to life and multiply rapidly enough that Monday morning the whole congregation is calling in sick.
Raw food can harbor parasites, most commonly adult tapeworm, tapeworm eggs, tapeworm larvae, and toxoplasma. Tapeworms are most commonly found in seafood. Cooking to 145°F will kill adult tapeworms as well as larvae and eggs. That is hotter than most chefs like to cook fish, even with conventional cooking. Fortunately, most parasites can be killed by freezing for 7 days at -4°F or for 15 hours at -35°F. Commercially frozen fish are often taken to these low temperatures. Alas, most home freezers are set to 0°F. So if you wish to cook fish to 131°F or below, you should consider buying commercially frozen fish.
Toxoplasma is found in shellfish and some mammals as well as contaminated water and cat litter. Fortunately toxoplasma is killed by freezing or cooking.
How do foods get contaminated?
That’s quite a rogues gallery of potential contaminants. If you ingest enough of them, they can leave you sitting on the toilet for hours, plant you on your knees in front of the porcelain god, send you to bed in a sweat and writhing in pain for months, propel you to the emergency room, or even the cemetery. Children and elderly are especially at risk.
It is helpful to think of all raw meat as kryptonite. Of course most is perfectly safe, but you never know, and trusting your butcher is no guarantee because most contamination happens long before it hits his loading dock. And although fruits and veggies are not as frequently contaminated, if you pay attention to the news, you will know that recalls of lettuce, spinach, chili peppers, melons, sprouts, and strawberries are frequent because we eat them raw. Contaminated meats are decontaminated when we cook them properly.
The most common source of contamination is animal waste, and that includes us. If the bad breeds of E-coli get into water that is used for irrigation, if organic fertilizer is not sterilized properly, if Bambi or Thumper have lunch in a field of lettuce, if a steer’s intestines are accidentally sliced open in the slaughterhouse, or if your butcher didn’t wash his hands after using the toilet, we have a problem.
Salmonella lives in many of our avian friends. If a bluebird bombs a strawberry, if the henhouse isn’t cleaned properly by a minimum wage teenager, if the water bath used to remove the feathers from chickens isn’t disinfected, we have a problem.
Egg shells may look impervious, but if the hen has salmonella, it can get into the ovum before the shell hardens.
Raw fish sushi is silky and elegant, unless tapeworm eggs from seals, walruses, or whales get into your salmon. They can grow up to 60 feet inside a human.
Raw sprouts might seem like health food, but if Tweety decides to visit the alfalfa seeds or if rodents and insects nibble through the burlap shipping bags in the hold of a ship or warehouse, when we soak and warm the seeds to sprout them, we also water and warm the pathogens. That makes sprouts the most dangerous food in the super market.
Improper food handling also makes contamination from your hands, cutting boards, and knives a major problem.
Pasteurization vs. sterilization
The most effective way to make food safe is to cook it properly. Raw food, of any kind, is always a risk. In the language of food safety scientists, you need a “kill step” in the process. Lemon juice, vinegar, alcohol, salt, and freezing will not pasteurize food. They may kill a few bad guys and hamper their growth, but they absolutely positively cannot be trusted to make food safe. Sorry, but they just don’t get the job done. Acid and salt might inhibit growth, but they won’t make your food or countertop safe. Remember, when research labs want to store their microbes, they freeze them.
Chlorine will kill bugs, but you don’t want to wash down your carrots with a poison. But chlorine is an excellent disinfectant for cutting borads, countertops, knobs, and handles.
Cooking is the only sure cure. To cook foods properly you must use a digital thermometer. Cooking without it is like driving at night without headlights. Click here for a Food Temperature Guide, and my recommendations for thermometers are here. The excellent thermometer shown here, the Thermoworks Thermopop reads accurately in 5 seconds and sells for less than $30. Click here to order it.
The goal in cooking is to make foods safe, and that usually means pasteurization.
Pasteurization. The process of killing all or almost all of the microbes in food usually by heat. Pasteurization may leave a few microbes, but it reduces the population to a level deemed safe (107 kill rate, a.k.a. 7D), which means that the number of survivors is so small, chances are you won’t encounter any, and if you do, there will be so few as to be harmless. But pasteurization cannot kill spores, which are dormant fortress-like forms that some microbes assume to withstand adversity (see sidebar). Pasteurization can be done quickly at high heat, or slowly at lower heat, usually above 130°F. At that temp it can take more than two hours to pasteurize chicken. At 165°F, it takes only two seconds. I have written more on this relationship between temperature, time, and kill level in my article on the Food Temperature Guide.
Sterilization. A method that kills or removes all microbes and their spores by using one or more of the following: Heat, irradiation, chemicals, pressure, or filtration.
Resources. A consortium of international research facilities has produced a databank of info about predictive microbiology and risk assessment called ComBase. It is loaded with highly technical but informative data.
- 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, 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 or nitrogen or wrapped in a film impregnated with nitrites 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 grills, smokers, or cooking utensils, clean them thoroughly before using them in order to remove any oil, grease, or metal shavings from the manufacturing process.
You can’t kill bacteria with lemon juice, alcohol, vinegar, salt, or by freezing.
Sorry, but they just don’t get the job done. They might inhibit growth, but they won’t make your food or countertop safe. When research labs want to store their microbes for later use, they preserve them by freezing them.
A hot dishwasher and its detergent will make dishes and utensils safe. For countertops, cutting boards, knives, meat grinders, and other things that can’t go in the dishwasher, bleach is your go-to sanitizer. That’s why they put it in swimming pools.
You don’t want to wash down your carrots with a poison. Buy an empty spray bottle at the drug store and fill it with a dilute solution of household bleach. USDA recommends a solution of one tablespoon of 5% unscented, liquid chlorine bleach per gallon of water. After washing with warm soapy water, sanitize with bleach. Wet the surface with the bleach solution and allow it to stand for several minutes. Rinse with clear water and air or pat dry with clean paper towels. Store the solution in the bottle, tightly sealed, and use it often.
- When you get home, get cold products into the fridge right away. And quit leaving the door open.
- Keep a thermometer in the fridge and the freezer. Make sure your refrigerator is between 33 and 40°F. Shoot for about 38°F for the fridge. Your freezer should be 0°F or below. If you lose electricity, keep the fridge door closed. The box is well insulated and if the gaskets are still good and the door is hung properly, food will be safe for hours.
- 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, date everything.
- 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 small moths in the pantry, you may have to throw everything in the pantry out because their eggs can be anywhere. 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 a bleach solution on anything except food. Depending on the concentration of acid and salt they might inhibit growth, but they won’t make your food or countertop safe. And when research labs want to store their cultures of microbes for later research, they freeze them. A hot dishwasher and its detergent will make things safe. For countertops, cutting boards, knives, meat grinders, and other things that can’t go in the dishwasher, bleach is your go-to sanitizer.
- If you rinse meat in the sink keep the water pressure low so you don’t splatter bacteria on the counter, clean dishes in the dish drain, and on the faucet handles. When you are done you must wash the sink thoroughly. Cleansers with bleach such as Comet are good for cleaning sinks, counters, and cutting boards. Scrub your sink often!
- Wrap raw meat tightly and put it in pans or on platters. Store raw meat so it cannot drip on other foods.
- Wash kitchen towels often.
- Sponges are the most contaminated thing in the kitchen, but putting a wet sponge in the microwave for two minutes will pasteurize them. Do it weekly.
- 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.
- Occasionally use a bleach solution to wash anything that you touch a lot like the refrigerator door, oven door, cabinet knobs.
- 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 twice. 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.
- 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!
- Use only cold marinades. If you had to heat your marinade to make it, let it cool before putting meat in it.
- Do not stack meat while cooling.
- 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.
- Gently rub and wash fruits and veggies under cold water even if you plan to peel them because contamination on the skins can get on your hands, knife, and cutting board. Firm fleshed fruits and veggies can be scrubbed with a clean brush or scrubbie sponge.
- Don’t wash poultry or other meats. Rinsing it in the sink cannot remove Salmonella and Campylobacter which are often embedded in the muscle. In fact, rinsing makes things worse by splattering contamination onto the sink and counters. “There’s no reason, from a scientific point of view, to think you’re making it any safer, and in fact, you’re making it less safe,” said Jennifer Quinlan, a food safety scientist at Drexel University in Philadelphia in an NPR interview. Click here for more surprising info on chicken safety.
- Cooking must be done at an air temperature of 175°F or higher unless you are cooking sous vide, in a vacuum sealed plastic bag hot water bath. That means your oven, frying oil, or boiling water must be above 175°F.
- 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 60 minutes, you must keep it warmer than 135°F.
- Be sure to clean the probe on your thermometer after you are done using it.
- When handling cooked foods you should use tongs or wear gloves.
- If cooked meat falls on the ground, for any length of time, even less than five seconds, it should be discarded or washed and then heated to above 165°F on the surface. A research paper titled “Residence time and food contact time effects on transfer of Salmonella Typhimurium from tile, wood and carpet: testing the five-second rule” published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Applied Microbiology in 2006 concluded that the five second rule is bogus. The team of scientists from Clemson University proved that “Salmonella Typhimurium can survive for up to four weeks on dry surfaces in high-enough populations to be transferred to foods and [it] can be transferred… almost immediately on contact.”
- 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 and turn it, you must clean tongs to take it off the grill.
- 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 and even that is not foolproof because some spores can survive boiling. It is better to discard them.
- Be sure to discard bastes 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 silicone 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?
- 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.
- Do not leave leftovers on the table for more than an hour. Refrigerate leftovers promptly on the lower, cooler shelves. Divide them into small portions so they cool quickly. FDA requires food processors to get the temp down to 41°F in six hours.
- 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.
Cutting board safety
- There have been several studies comparing cutting board materials. The results are mixed. Both wood and plastic can be cleaned well with hot soapy water, but plastic can go into the dishwasher where the water is a lot hotter and the soap more caustic, rinsing more thorough, and drying is hot. But the problem with both is when they get cuts. Microbes can hide in the cuts and might even survive the dishwasher, but not many. Wood, however, has some properties that can kill microbes, so if they get down into a cut, they might not get out. In either case, if your cutting board gets a lot of deep cuts and gouges, sand it smooth or throw it out. If it is oak, burn it in your smoker.
- If you do not have a dishwasher, use a bleach solution to clean your cutting board.
- Keep two boards, one 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 by the heat of cooking. But chicken is different. When chicken is processed, it is usually dunked in 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 radioactive. Leaving it sit out at room temp is 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 is a dangerous combo.
- Use sharp knives.
- Do not gesture and waive with knives in your hands.
- Always use a cutting board. Never cut anything that is in your hand.
- 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.
Stovetop and side burner safety
- 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. Liquids expand when they are heated.
- 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 grease fires. The best extinguisher is rated ABC (see below).
- 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 next to a furnace air inlet or even a window. The house is often under a negative pressure, and can suck in these killing gases.
- 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 flammables. Keep propane tanks at least two feet from the burners unless there is shielding.
- On gas grills, always lift the lid when you ignite the burners. If you have one burner lit and want to add others, it is safe, just open the lid. 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.
- 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 or smoker, 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 and Calibrating 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. And grilling is yet another great excuse to not wear a tie.
- If you pour water over hot coals, it will produce enough steam to melt your nose, and enough hot water will come out of the bottom to melt your toes.
- 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 have died 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.
Important related articles
Yes, it can be. According to the USDA “The color of cooked meat and poultry is not always a sure sign of its degree of doneness. Only by using a food thermometer can one accurately determine that a meat has reached a safe temperature. Turkey, fresh pork, ground beef, or veal can remain pink even after cooking to temperatures of 160°F and higher. The meat of smoked turkey is always pink.”
In addition, smoked meat turns pink due to a chemical reaction with the combustion gases and the smoke and the meat. Click here for more on what are ideal meat temps. Click here for more on meat science and the thermodynamics of cooking.
Don’t use blade tenderizers and beware of meat that has been mechanically tenderized
Some meat suppliers try to tenderize beef by using a device called a blade tenderizer. It is a series of thin sharp blades or needles that stab the meat and cut through tough fibers and connective tissues. Here is a picture of a home version called a jaccard. Commercial versions are motorized and much larger. They work, but they are also high risk.
Beef pathogens, like dangerous strains of E-coli, are common on the surface of meat, but they are killed almost instantly when cooked. But if the meat has been blade tenderized, these bugs can be pushed down into the center of the meat which often is not cooked enough to kill them.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, between 2003 and 2009, blade tenderized beef caused 174 illnesses that we know of, and one person died. It is estimated that for every case reported, there may be 20 or more cases unreported.
You cannot tell by looking at meat if it has been mechanically tenderized so a USDA rule requiring labeling of blade or needle tenderized meat is trying to get on the books but is being held up by the bureaucracy.
Incidentally, meat labeled organic is allowed to be blade tenderized.
Beware of sun tea
Sun tea is a method of making tea by pouring tea leaves into water in a clear class jar and setting it in the sun to steep. Tea leaves are grown in fields where birds and other animals can easily contaminate them with droppings. They are harvested by dirty hands. Many tea leaves are also dried in the open. They are not washed or pasteurized. Contamination is not just a possibility. It is likely. Steeping the leaves warm and wet in ambient air temp is a lovely environment for microbial growth. UV from the sun and tannin from the leaves may inhibit growth a bit, like a speed bump, but they cannot stop it. Boiling tea leaves kills all microbes. Boil your tea, please.
Storing raw meats
Can you imagine life without refrigeration? We would eat only what we killed today, or we would all be vegetarians, or we would all be experts on pickling and canning.
But you cannot keep meat in the fridge or freezer forever. Even at standard refrigerator temp, 40°F, 3 to 5 days is the longest you should keep raw meat. Keep in mind, many meats you buy may have already been stored in grocery for several days. So it is best to cook meats soon after you get them home or freeze them. Meat kept in the fridge can still host and grow dangerous microbes, so just because it is chilled doesn’t mean it is safe. Cooked meats, if wrapped well, can be kept for up to a week in the fridge before they get risky.
Frozen meats stay good longer. At standard freezer temperature, 0°F, most dangerous microbes cannot grow, so frozen meat can be safe for many months. But remember, freezing does not kill microbes. Oxygen in the packaging can change the flavor and texture of the meat, and the cold can freeze dry it. When wrapping meat for the freezer, get out as much air as possible wrapping it first with form fitting plastic wrap. If you can, use a vacuum system to suck out the air.
Ground meats have more oxygen mixed in so they start tasting funny sooner than steaks. Pork gets funky faster than lamb which gets funky faster than chicken or turkey, and beef is the last to go.
In general, the bigger the hunk of meat, the longer it will keep. Here’s a rough guide that can vary depending on how well you have wrapped the meat:
Ground pork and sausage: 2 months
Ground beef or lamb: 4 months
Pork chops: 4 months
Pork roasts: 5 months
Lamb chops: 5 months
Steaks: 6 months
Beef roasts: 8 months
Class A fire extinguishers are for paper, wood, cardboard, and most plastics.
Class B fire extinguishers are for flammable liquids such as gasoline, kerosene, oil, and grease.
Class C fire extinguishers are for electrical equipment and wiring.
Class D fire extinguishers are for combustible metals including magnesium, titanium, potassium, sodium, and some other chemicals.
Class ABC fire extinguishers can handle most everything except some class D materials. This is the one you want. Beware, they contain a yellow powder that can damage electrical devices.
Gas is heavier than air
ESPN host Hannah Storm returned to the air on New Year’s Day 2013 with a bandaged hand, a wig, false eyelashes and eyebrows after a horrific accident with her propane grill just three weeks earlier.
She was injured when trying to ignite her propane grill after the wind blew the flame out. Unbeknownst to her, the gas continued to course through the jets and pooled in the lower chamber because it is heavier than air. Watch the short video above as a cautionary tale.
The Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act requires that food packaging must declare prominently if it contains any of the eight most common food allergens: Milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, fish, shellfish, soy, and wheat.
A good host will always ask guests in advance if they have any food allergies and either plan a menu that omits them, or plan a special dish for the guest with the allergy. Of course it is also the guest’s obligation to inform the host so when dinner is served the host doesn’t feel bad that the guest pushes away the plate.
The whole thing gets a bit complicated when people who don’t have an allergy or celiac disease, but they have decided to avoid gluten or another food that they think is bad for them.
Common sense, courtesy, tolerance, and communications need to be the watchwords.
So this food safety expert from the FDA was giving a seminar on food safety at a culinary school. Near the end of the talk she touched on the fact that some foods have effects that are cumulative and the hazard might not be evident for decades. She asked the audience if they could think of an example. After a few moments of silence an old codger in the front row raised his hand and mumbled “wedding cake.”