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All about COVID-19, food safety and grilling

By: Samantha Murray Special to the Star
The Star

If you grill out this summer, you might wonder how to factor COVID-19 precautions into your outdoor cooking.

While COVID-19 is not a foodborne illness — meaning, there’s no evidence at this time that you can get it from consuming improperly cooked food — good hand hygiene and other practices can help prevent the spread of coronavirus and other pathogens that are foodborne, says a University of Florida food safety expert.

“Regular handwashing and sanitizing surfaces are key for getting rid of germs that might make you sick, and that include coronavirus and common foodborne pathogens, like norovirus, E. coli or Salmonella,” said Keith Schneider, a professor of food science and human nutrition at UF/IFAS.

“You might have a good system for keeping food safe when you’re cooking at home. But when it comes to preparing and eating food outdoors, there are other risks and more considerations to take,” Schneider said.

To prevent food poisoning the next time you fire up the grill, Schneider answers some common food safety questions.

Is hand sanitizer just as good as washing your hands?

“Using hand sanitizer or washing your hands with soap and water will reduce the risk of contaminating food,” Schneider said. “If you don’t have access to soap and water when you’re cooking outdoors, hand sanitizer is a good choice.”

Is it okay to store raw meat in the same cooler as the potato salad?

“The number one likely cause of foodborne illness at a barbeque is contact between raw meats and ready to eat foods, such as a potato salad,” Schneider said. “That’s why it’s important to keep those things separate and prevent cross contamination. Storing raw meat in a separate cooler is one way to do that.”

Speaking of that potato salad, is mayonnaise what makes it go bad?

“Actually, bacteria don’t grow very well in mayonnaise on its own. But when you introduce other things to that mayo, such as potatoes, eggs or macaroni, you’re adding water to the mix, making the mayo less acidic and creating a better environment for bacteria,” Schneider said.

This is why it’s important to keep foods made with mayo cold because the lower temperature prevents the growth of germs, he said.

I dropped a burger bun on the ground, but I picked it up right away. Five second rule, right?

“There is no such thing as the five second rule,” Schneider said. “As soon as food comes in contact with germs, it’s contaminated. At that point, it’s best to use a new bun.”

Is this chicken done?

“When it comes to poultry, you can’t go by color. Instead, use a meat thermometer to confirm that the thickest part of the chicken has reached 165 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s the temperature at which harmful germs are killed,” Schneider said.

Are those communal charcoal grills at parks and beaches safe to use?

“Generally, yes — that’s because those grills will get very hot. If you preheat them, that will kill any germs that were present,” Schneider said. “Still, cleaning them is a good idea, not necessarily for safety, but who wants week-old charred cheese on their freshly cooked burger?”

Do I need to use different tongs or spatulas for cooked and uncooked meat?

“This is another common mistake: using the same tongs or spatula for raw and cooked meat. This just contaminates cooked meat with germs that were on the uncooked meat,” Schneider said. “However, washing those tools after they contact raw meat might not be practical when you’re cooking outdoors. Instead, just bring two sets to your barbeque — one for raw meat, one for cooked.”

How long can I leave the leftovers out?

“The general recommendation is to refrigerate leftovers within two hours. However, if it’s a hot day and food is left out outside, that window shrinks to about an hour,” Schneider said.