Kiss the Cook: Grilling Food Safety

NOTE: In May 2011, the United States Department of Agriculture Food Safety and Inspection Service updated its recommendation for safely cooking pork, steaks, roasts and chops. The USDA FSIS now recommends that whole cuts of meat are cooked to an internal temperature of 145°F, as measured by a food thermometer placed in the thickest part of the meat, and then allowing the meat to rest for three (3) minutes before carving or consuming.

This change does not apply to ground meats, including ground beef, veal, lamb, and pork, which should be cooked to 160 °F and do not require a rest time.

As summer blows in on a warm and humid breeze, so come the days of cook-outs and ball games, barbeques and pool parties.  It is so easy during this time of the year to sport a “Kiss the Cook” apron, fire-up the grill and forget life’s worries.  It is not that one must stop the fun and start lamenting over the world’s problems; however, while flipping that burger, it is important to also be mindful of food safety—especially when preparing food for older adults, anyone who might have a weakened immune system, and young children.

Symptoms of foodborne illness can range from an upset stomach to severe abdominal discomfort to hemolytic uremic syndrome and can be caused by many different sources.  The most commonly diagnosed foodborne illnesses are from Campylobacter, Salmonella and E. coli 0157:H7 bacteria.  These bacteria may be found in many types of food; however, this article will focus on the association of foodborne illness with raw food of animal origin, such as raw meat or juices from raw poultry:

  • Campylobacter, the most commonly identified cause of diarrheal illness in the world, can be found in raw poultry meat and causes illness if someone eats undercooked chicken or food that has been contaminated with juices and drippings from raw chicken.
  • Salmonella can be present in a variety of foods with animal origin. It can cause abdominal cramping, fever and diarrhea when someone eats undercooked meat or poultry or other foods contaminated with their juices or drippings.
  • E. coli 0157:H7 is the most common strain of Escherichia coli and is associated with cow feces.  This illness is typically caused by eating undercooked meats or unwashed vegetables that have been contaminated at some point along the food supply chain.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that approximately 76 million people in the U.S. get sick from foodborne illness each year.  Of these individuals, 325,000 are hospitalized, and about 5,000 people die each year due to foodborne illness.  There are simple steps that you can take when preparing food to reduce the risk of becoming a statistic.

There are four basic food safety steps to reduce the risk of foodborne illness: clean, separate, cook and chill \[See Be Food Safe with Win Video\].  When it comes to summer grilling, “cooking” is a critical and important step.  As indicated above, many instances of foodborne illness are associated with, and stem from, consumption of raw or undercooked animal food products.  Thus, ensuring food is cooked to a safe internal temperature is vital to reduce the risk of foodborne illness. Contrary to popular belief, the doneness of meats cannot be determined by looking at it—use of a food thermometer is the only way to determine if the food is cooked to a safe internal temperature.  Not only will the food thermometer help you to cook food to a safe internal temperature, but it will also prevent you from overcooking your food and ending up with beef Frisbees!

The safe internal temperature of meat is not a “one temperature fits all;” it depends on the type of meat being cooked. Minimum safe internal temperatures for specific foods are:

  • Steaks: 145 °F
  • Fish: 145 °F
  • Ground Beef (e.g., hamburger): 160 °F
  • Chicken Breasts: 165 °F
  • Pork: 160 °F

The best thermometers to use while grilling are either the digital instant-read thermometers, which need to be inserted about half an inch into the center of the food to gauge the temperature in about 10 seconds, or the thermometer-fork combination, which must be placed at least a quarter of an inch into the center of the food and reads the temperature in 2-10 seconds.  To get an accurate temperature reading, insert the thermometer into the thickest part of the meat without touching bone, gristle or fat.  Once the food reaches its safe internal temperature, it’s safe to eat and serve to family and friends, just remember to place the cooked meat on a different plate than that which held the raw meat to avoid cross contamination!

For more information on summer food safety, visit