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Dr. Fernstrom: Food mistakes that could jeopardize your next summer BBQ

The idea of washing raw chicken before cooking to get rid of bacteria could not be further from the truth.
NBC News' health editor, Dr. Madelyn Fernstrom, speaks to Know Your Value founder Mika Brzezinski.
NBC News' health editor, Dr. Madelyn Fernstrom, speaks to Know Your Value founder Mika Brzezinski.Miller Hawkins

Summer is here, which means it’s time for one of my favorite warm weather-rituals: outdoor BBQs.

But when it comes to summer food safety, there are definitely some mistakes you won’t want to make. The Center for Disease Control estimates that roughly one in six Americans (or 48 million people) get sick from foodborne illness! Nearly 130,000 people are hospitalized, while another 3,000 people die from bacteria, viruses, or parasites in food. Follow these food safety tips, and you won’t be one of them!

Wash your hands (and keep surfaces clean)

A major source of bacteria comes from your hands – so wash them thoroughly before, during and after cooking – especially after handling raw meat or chicken. Wash with soap and water when you can – and not just a few swipes with the soap. You need about 20 seconds (singing the “happy birthday” song twice) for thorough cleaning. Use hand sanitizer if you’re stuck. And keep your preparation surfaces like counters and cutting boards clean and bacteria-limited by using paper towels you can throw out after use.

Separate cooked from raw foods

Avoid cross contamination by keeping all of your cooked and raw foods separated, both in the fridge, and on the counter. Don’t reuse the same plates for raw and cooked foods – or use paper plates for raw foods, that you can simply throw away (along with any bacteria). And use different cutting boards and knives for each.

Defrost meats properly

Thawing out your meats and poultry in the fridge is ideal, but you can use the “cold water” method, which is faster than the refrigerator, but takes more attention. The frozen package needs to be leak-proof (to avoid outside bacteria from entering), and the water changed every 30 minutes. If you’re in a rush, defrost in the microwave. Make sure to cook these foods as soon as they’re thawed out. Defrosting frozen meats on the counter is an open invitation for bacterial growth – so don’t take that chance. Remember that you can also cook frozen meats safely – but allow for about an extra 50 percent in cooking time (for example, a 30 minute cooking time for the thawed food will take about 45 minutes if frozen).

Skip washing raw chicken

The idea of washing raw chicken before cooking to get rid of bacteria could not be further from the truth. Washing the raw chicken spreads bacteria all over the sink, and whatever counters are nearby. Fight that impulse, and stick it on the grill, where the high heat will kill off the bacteria.

Throw out used marinade

It’s not “wasting food” when you throw out used marinade because you’re tossing all the bacteria it contains! And don’t re-use it as a topping for your cooked meats. Prepare some fresh extra marinade if you prefer. And marinate your meats and poultry in a big plastic re-sealable bag that you can throw out after you’ve put the meat on a plate or directly on the grill.

Check for “doneness” with a thermometer

Undercooked and raw meats and poultry can make you sick, so use an instant food thermometer to test for doneness. Eyeballing or using the “press the flesh test” doesn’t work. This varies for different cuts of meat, poultry, and fish. Cook to a minimum of 160 degrees for a burger (that’s “medium”), 145 for beef, pork, veal, and lamb, 145 for fish and seafood, and 165 for all poultry (cooked through, not pink). Those who are very young, very old, or with a compromised immune system are most at risk for bacterial illness from undercooked foods.

Keep your foods at the right temperature

Cold foods need to be kept below 40 degrees (fridge temp), and hot foods higher than 140 (the oven on warm). The “danger zone” for bacterial growth is between 40 and 140 degrees. But you can safely keep your cold and hot foods outdoors for up to two hours if the temperature is below 90 degrees. For 90 degrees or above, one hour is the limit. After that, move them to the fridge. And it’s a good idea to also keep a thermometer in your refrigerator to make sure the temperature is always below 40 degrees. Those fridge dials of “cold” and “colder” are not reliable.

And one more long term potential food safety concern:

Avoid well-done crispy meats and chicken

While not an issue of food borne illness, grilling meats until they are burned and crispy may be associated with an increased risk of cancer. When muscle meats are over-cooked and burned, chemicals called HCAs (heterocyclic amines) are formed, which have been linked to an increased cancer risk in animals. Studies in humans are conflicting, and there are currently no federal guidelines on this topic. At this point, when it comes to safe grilling, I’d like to paraphrase Goldilocks: “not too rare, not too burnt, but just right.” Stick with medium for optimal safety.

Madelyn Fernstrom, Ph.D. is the NBC News Health Editor. Follow her on Twitter @drfernstrom.