Published on 05/24/99

Avoid Hidden Dangers in Backyard Barbecues

With the backyard grilling season starting in earnest, many outdoor cooks' greatest fear is E. coli. But more hidden dangers lurk in the handling than inside the meat, says a University of Georgia expert.

"The first place people go wrong is taking foods from the freezer and thawing them on the counter," said Judy Harrison, an Extension Service food safety specialist with the UGA College of Family and Consumer Sciences.

"Thawing foods at room temperature allows bacteria to multiply," she said. "The first step in keeping meat and poultry safe for grilling is to thaw them and marinate them in the refrigerator."

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Don't put cooked meat or poultry on the same plate that held the raw meat unless you have thoroughly washed the plate.

Separate Raw Foods From Cooked

The second step is to keep raw foods separated from cooked.

"Don't put cooked meat or poultry on the same plate that held the raw meat unless you have throughly washed the plate," Harrison said.

Always thoroughly wash your hands and all preparation areas and utensils.

Keep Grill Hot, Clean

Step three to safe grilling is the grill. A few years ago, consumers were alarmed when scientists published studies alleging that compounds formed when food is charred on a grill are carcinogenic.

"To be safe, allow coals to burn until they're ashy white (about 20 to 30 minutes), before you begin cooking," Harrison said. "That will make sure the temperature is high enough to cook properly."

Trim fat from meats, too, to help prevent flame-ups that can char food.

Once the coals are ready, look at the grill. How clean is the rack?

"Most people just let whatever residue is on there burn off," Harrison said. "That's probably OK. But a cleaner, safer alternative is to wash the grill rack in hot, soapy water as soon as you finish cooking.

"Don't let food residue stay on the grill," she said. "If you do, it's harder to clean, and bacteria are more likely to be present and multiply."

If you're basting with marinade, remember to keep raw and cooked foods separate.

"Set aside a separate bowl of the marinade to use for basting," Harrison said. "Don't let the marinade that has come in contact with the raw meat get back in contact with the meat as it is cooking, or you'll just add the bacteria back."

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Cook beef and pork to an internal temperature of at least 160 degrees Fahrenheit and poultry to 180 F.

Cook Meat Thoroughly

The final step to safe grilling is getting the meat cooked thoroughly.

"The best way to tell when it's thoroughly cooked is to use a meat thermometer or a metal stem-type test thermometer," Harrison said.

Beef and pork should reach an internal temperature of at least 160 degrees Fahrenheit for medium and 170 F for well done. Poultry should be 180 F.

Be especially careful to check ground meat. Ground beef should reach at least 160 F in the center. Ground poultry should reach 165 F.

"We used to recommend that if the juices were running clear and the meat was brown in the center it was done," Harrison said. "We now know that some ground beef turns brown before it reaches 160 degrees and some stays pink after it reaches that point. You need to check it with a thermometer."

Harrison said people often ask her why you can eat a steak that's pink in the center, but not a hamburger. "Most bacteria need air to exist," she said. "With a cut of meat, the contaminants are mainly on the surface.

"During cooking, the surface reaches a high temperature rather quickly, and the bacteria are killed," she said. "But with ground beef, air and bacteria get spread throughout the product during grinding. So you need to get the center thoroughly done."

Keep Foods Safely Hot

Getting the meat safely cooked is half the battle. Keeping it safe is the other.

"Once the food is cooked, transfer that hot product from the grill to a serving utensil where it can be kept at 140 degrees F or above for serving," Harrison said. "That's especially important if it will be out more than two hours, or even more than one hour on a hot day."

Try warming trays, crock pots or chafing dishes with Sterno burners to keep foods hot.

Faith Peppers is the director of public affairs with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.