2017-06-25 / Insight

Take caution when grilling to avoid illness

BY PHIL FOLEY
810-452-2616 • pfoley@mihomepaper.com

LAPEER TWP. — Wednesday was the official first day of summer, but many households are already deep into the graduation, wedding, family reunion and have a good time in the backyard season. That means our yards, decks and beaches are awash with burgers, potato salad and all sorts of tempting goodies.

It also means that if we’re not careful, a lot of us are going to spend a lot more time in the bathroom than we had planned. According to Christine Venema, a Michigan State University Extension Food Safety Educator, one in six of us, or nearly 15,000 Lapeer County residents will get food poisoning sometime in the next 12 months.

That’s a lot of Imodium and we could avoid it all with one simple thing. “You need to start with clean hands,” Venema said.

The biggest mistake most people make when cooking outdoors, or indoors for that matter, is “not washing these 10 utensils,” she said holding up her outstretched hands.


Christine Venema, a food safety expert with the MSU Extension Service, said two of the best investments you can make in keeping your family safe is a food thermometer and a refrigerator thermometer. 
Photo by Phil Foley Christine Venema, a food safety expert with the MSU Extension Service, said two of the best investments you can make in keeping your family safe is a food thermometer and a refrigerator thermometer. Photo by Phil Foley She said people will form hamburger patties with their bare hands and then pick up vegetables, transferring whatever bacteria that cooking the meat to 160-degrees would have killed.

The second biggest mistake people make is bringing raw meat, poultry or fish to the grill on a platter and then put the cooked product back on the same plate. The juices on the plate from the raw product can be a sea of bacteria.

For most people, that mistake will lead to a bout of the “24-hour flu,” which Venema said is a myth. “Twenty-four hour flu is a fallacy — anything that happens in 24 hours isn’t the flu,” she said. It’s a food borne illness.

One of the most common illnesses is the result of toxins created by E. Coli. For most of us it’s merely unpleasant, but for 128,000 American’s annually it means a trip to the hospital.

Sometimes it’s worse. Venema noted in 1993 an E. coli outbreak at 73 Jack in the Box restaurants sickened 732 people, most under the age of 10. Four children died and another 178 suffered permanent injury including kidney and brain damage.

To be safe, ground meat which has a greater chance for contamination needs to be cooked to an internal temperature of 160-degrees Fahrenheit. Muscle meat —steaks, roast and the like — she said, are safe to eat at 145 degrees as is fish. Pork and egg dishes, like ground meat, need to be cooked to 160 degrees and all poultry should have an internal temperature of 165 degrees before it’s served.

Otherwise, it’s Russian roulette. According to the CDC 5,000 of the 76 million Americans stricken by food borne illnesses annually die.

A simple meat thermometer, Venema said, is a small investment with big safety pay offs. It’s also important to make sure it’s accurate. To test, make a glass of ice slush water and hold the probe in it for a few minutes.

If the thermometer doesn’t read 32 degrees, it’s off. Follow the manufacturer’s instructions to adjust it.

Venema said it’s critically important to keep hot things hot and cold things cold. If you use a crock pot to keep things hot on your party table, make sure it’s at the right temperature. She said you should put two or three cups of water in the crockpot; put it on the low setting; and wait for it to steam. If your thermometer doesn’t read 140, she said, the low setting isn’t safe.

Cold things, she said, should be kept as close to 40 degrees as possible. On a day where it’s between 50 and 70 degrees outside, Venema said, it takes about six hours for a container of food at 40 degrees to reach 70 degrees and become unusable. However, she added, at temperatures above 90 that window of safety shrinks to 30 minutes.

Once cold food hits 70 degrees, Venema said, “the bacteria wakes up and says, ‘Oh, okay, we’re going to have some fun.’”

And there’s a bunch of them to have a party. Along with E. coli and salmonella, there’s also Campylobacter, Shigella, Cyclospora and Listeria just to name a few. All can produce vomiting and diarrhea.

The toxins produced by Listeria, which can be found in unpasteurized dairy products, Venema said, can kill a fetus. Salmonella can cause reactive arthritis. At a recent conference, Venema met a 17-year-old woman who contracted reactive arthritis after eating contaminated cantaloupe at the age of three. The woman has been in pain ever since.

It all could have been avoided, said Venema, by washing the outside of the cantaloupe, the knife and the cutting board before serving the food.

She said she can’t stress enough the importance of never using a cutting board to cut more than one thing without washing, rinsing and sanitizing a cutting board with bleach between uses. It’s one of the reasons she keeps 20 cutting boards in her house.

Raw foods and cooked food are like Spartan and Wolverine fans, they should never be allowed to come in contact with each other. One way to prevent that is to have color coded dishes — one color for raw things and one for cooked.

Despite knowing all the dangers of a backyard barbecue, Venema said, “I love food.” However, she said, “I’m usually one of the first people there and I eat first and then talk.”

The grilling season, said Venema, can be a safe and fun experience for everyone as long as people remember to keep things clean and separate and to cook and chill things properly.

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