Danger On The Backyard Grill

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Public health officials say barbecued meat that is undercooked or improperly handled may increase the risk for salmonella infections.

It is not uncommon to see bacterial outbreaks, including salmonella, peak in the summer when a lot of cooking and food-handling takes place outdoors. Researchers found 126 people in Georgia infected with salmonella in the summers of 1998 and 1999. They say all the infections were from eating contaminated barbecued pork.

"Any meat that is undercooked or not handled properly can be contaminated and can make you sick," says Catherine Rebmann, an author and epidemiologist at Georgia Division of Public Health in Atlanta.

Rebmann, who presented the findings at the International Conference on Emerging Infectious Disease in Atlanta, says, "The most important thing is to avoid eating undercooked or improperly handled meat," especially for pregnant women and people who are immunocompromised.

Researchers say salmonella lurks in the pig's digestive tract and may contaminate the carcass during processing. The outbreaks were probably caused by a failure to reach a temperature while grilling that was sufficient to kill pathogenic bacteria. This means the meat was not cooked all the way through.

Dr. Sumathi Sivapalasingam of the Foodborne and Diarrheal Diseases Branch at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, says that cooking veal, lamb and pork thoroughly means the meat's internal temperature has to reach 160 degrees Fahrenheit or more. The temperature should be 165 degrees for poultry and ground meat, she says.

Sivapalasingam cautions that people should avoid partially cooking the meat at home and then finishing cooking it on outdoor barbecue grills. "Subsequent cooking may not kill the bacteria that might have contaminated the meat in the process of transporting the meat from home to the barbecue area," says Sivapalasingam. "We recommend cooking the meat fully at the picnic site."

The United States Department of Agriculture has a meat and poultry hotline for barbecue cooking safety tips. Call 1-800-535-4555 for more information.

Six Ways to Make Your Barbecues Healthier

One of the most popular rites of summer is the outdoor cookout. Unfortunately, evidence suggests that foods cooked on a charcoal, gas, or electric grill may be hazardous to your health.

The National Academy of Science has discovered a possible link between the grilling of food and the development of what are believed to be cancer-causing compounds. Some researchers suspect that when high-fat, high-protein foods, like hamburgers, are exposed to the intense, searing heat of barbecue cooking, the fat and protein turn into mutagens, chemicals that can damage the genetic material of cells and possibly cause cancer.

Since the jury is still out on whether or not grilled food definitely causes cancer, it's probably wise to reserve barbecuing for special occasions, rather than grill food regularly.

Some other guidelines to reduce the potential risks from eating grilled food include:

  1. Before cooking meat or poultry (or fish, if applicable), trim away fat. And don't baste foods to be grilled with butter or oil.
  2. Keep a spray water bottle handy to douse flare-ups.
  3. Position food well above the heat source.
  4. If noticeable amounts of fat drip and flare up as food cooks, lower the flame or move the food to another part of the grill.
  5. Cook food until it's done, but avoid charring it. The longer food is grilled and the blacker it gets, the higher the risk.
  6. To avoid charring fish and vegetables, wrap them in aluminum foil.

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