Planning a summer cookout? Be sure to ‘Grill it Safe’

Story by Jacqueline M. Hames, Soldiers magazine

Summertime means everyone gets a chance to relax. Families get to spend quality time together on the beach or in the pool, at a picnic or a backyard barbeque during the summer months. It’s a carefree existence for the most part, but if you’re grilling this summer, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service wants to remind you to be safe.

This year, the FSIS is partnering with two Army chefs, known as the “Grill Sergeants,” to help educate the public about food safety, especially during the summer grilling season. The Pentagon Channel will be airing a program called “Grill It Safe” throughout the summer, to teach the public about safe barbecuing techniques.

Dr. Elisabeth Hagen, under secretary for Food Safety at the USDA, said partnering with the Soldier chefs is a fun way to connect with and inform service members and their families about food safety.

“The whole purpose of this is to show people how to stay safe,” Army chef Sgt. 1st Class Guy Winks, one of the hosts of “Grill Sergeants,” explained. “Because people don’t realize; they don’t think about (food safety).”

The program, filmed at Fort Meade, Md., focused on applying the food safety techniques of “clean, separate, cook and chill” to outdoor cooking.

Winks, his co-host Staff Sgt. Edmund Perez and the film crew set up a grilling station on a lawn just outside a Marine barracks, May 18. Lights secured to metal struts shone on the set, enhancing the already sunny day. Waves of heat radiated off the grills as the crew prepared for the show while a joint-service audience filled the bleachers.

Representatives from the USDA, wearing “clean, separate, cook and chill” logos on their aprons, safely prepped food for the show using gloves, multiple utensils and several cutting boards. Plastic cups filled with garlic, fajita spices and fresh herbs dotted the checkered tablecloths.

Perez kicked off the show by introducing Hagen, and filming began in earnest.

“One in six Americans — 48 million people — get sick from foodborne illness right here in the United States every year,” Hagen said in a separate interview, explaining that of those, 128,000 will be hospitalized and 3,000 will die. “This is a really significant public health issue.”

Some of the most common foodborne illnesses include norovirus, salmonella, E. coli and listeria, she said, explaining that young children run the highest risk of illness. Symptoms such as nausea, vomiting and sometimes fever are typical with cases of food poisoning, but most people don’t make the connection — they just assume it’s a case of stomach flu or another bug. Instead of taking the “wait-and-see” approach, however, Hagen recommends going to the doctor if you suspect you have food poisoning.

“If you have any suspicion that (your illness) is related to food, it’s a good thing to go get the appropriate medical attention. Some things are better off left treated, and some things are better off left untreated, (but) there are certain tests to be able to make an (accurate) diagnosis,” Hagen said. “It’s also really good for the community at large, because the faster a potential case of foodborne illness gets into the survey of ailments, the more people can be helped … you can start linking those cases together.”

Of course, food poisoning can be avoided if cooks follow the clean, separate, cook and chill procedures.

“The clean step may sound pretty obvious, but it bears repeating over and over again,” Hagen said. That means cooks should always start with clean utensils, surfaces and especially, hands. Wash your hands for at least 20 seconds.

“You don’t have soap and water like you do in the kitchen in an outdoor setting,” Diane Van, deputy director for Food Safety Education, FSIS, said. “So you might want to take along a lot of utensils so that you don’t need to reuse others.”

Perez recommended wearing disposable gloves and using hand sanitizer when water sources aren’t readily available, while Winks emphasized changing gloves after handling each food item to prevent cross contamination.

“You’d be surprised how many people think ‘I’ve got gloves on and that means my hands are safe.’ I don’t know what they’re thinking,” Winks said. “It’s like ‘No. You need to change gloves just like you would wash you hands.’ You handle raw meat? Boom. Ditch the gloves.”

Keeping foods separate is also important, especially keeping raw foods away from cooked foods. “When you’re at the grill, keep the raw hamburgers or the raw meat separate from say the buns or the tomato and lettuce that you’re going to use on those,” Van said. She also explained that chefs should always use separate cutting boards or serving dishes for raw and cooked foods. If you place cooked food in a dish that held raw food without washing it, you are recontaminating the cooked food.

The next step, cook, is all about cooking to a proper temperature.

“You only know if you’re at the proper temperature if you use a meat thermometer,” Hagen said. “I think a lot of us grow up hearing things like ‘cook until juices run clear.’ I just read again in a magazine about pushing on burgers to tell whether they’re done or not.”

The only safe way to tell if meat or poultry is done, Hagen stressed, is to use a meat thermometer. The temperatures people should look for, in degrees Fahrenheit, are: 145 degrees for whole cuts of red meat, 165 degrees for all poultry and 160 degrees for ground red meat and all pork.

The final food prep step, chilling, is tricky at a picnic site. Van recommends bringing plenty of ice packs and coolers for storing food once everyone is done eating. Drinks should be in their own coolers, separate from food, and all coolers should be kept in the shade to maintain a consistent temperature.

Food can sit out on the picnic table without heating or cooling aids for about two hours if the outdoor temperature is 90 degrees or below, Van explained. More than 90 degrees, and the time is reduced to one hour — if the food sits out longer, it enters a “temperature danger zone” where bacteria can grow and multiply.

The temperature danger zone exists between 40 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit: Hot foods have to be above 140 degrees, and cold foods need to be kept below 40 degrees.

“That’s a big one in barbecuing, too,” Winks added. “People will cook stuff and that food will be sitting there for six hours while everybody’s playing football or doing this or that and the other. Then people come back and want to eat some more, and it’s just been sitting there.” Eating food that has been sitting out for extended periods of time is unsafe.

“When I’m doing something like a buffet, I use a two-hour block. That’s a 90-minute serving period with a half hour of set up,” he said.

If the family cookout will extend beyond two hours, Van stressed that foods will need to be kept at the proper temperature. Cold foods need to stay cold, through the use of ice baths or coolers, while hot foods need to stay hot, kept on chaffing dishes or other heat sources.

Winks also explained that refrigerate does not mean the same thing as heat, or cook. Refrigeration slows down growth of bacteria, but does not stop it all together. When taking out leftover meats, like hotdogs or chicken, they need to be reheated.

“Nuke it,” Perez said.

At the end of filming, Winks and Perez gathered the dishes they had made, including orange marmalade steak, deviled eggs, chicken and grilled potato salad, on to a buffet for the audience to sample.

Major Valerie Takesue, assigned to the Warrior Transition Unit at Fort Meade, was in the audience during the filming. She had seen the sergeants on the Armed Forces Network while stationed in Korea, and thought it would be fun to watch a live show. She decided to taste the chicken and deviled eggs that were made during the segment.

“It’s really good,” Takesue said of the chicken, “It’s not too sweet, because I tend not to really like a lot of barbeque sauce on my chicken. I had a deviled egg and that was very good too. It was a little spicy, I think because of that fajita (spice) he put in it.”

Food safety is a serious concern, and sometimes people may feel apprehensive about cooking because they may not remember all the information when setting up the grill. Hagen wants the public to understand that they are not alone.

The FSIS has many resources on its website at http://www.fsis.usda.gov/, to include live chat, fact sheets, a food safety hotline and an “Ask Karen” app available for smartphones — all helpful, readily available resources to consider before you light your grill.

“We don’t want to overwhelm people, we just want (food safety) to be a part of what you’re doing,” Hagen said.

Editor’s Note: “Grill It Safe” will air on the Pentagon Channel through Labor Day. To watch it now, visit http://player.theplatform.com/ps/player/pds/PVZ32iOKjb?pid=FvBdCRTCg_A8A8aCqEt_pTGwP8JZnTfB.