Barbecuing is ingrained in Australian culture. Data from Roy Morgan Research indicates that almost two-thirds of Australian households own a barbecue. This figure is closer to three-quarters of households in some parts of the country, such as South Australia and the Australian Capital Territory.
However, despite being a nation of barbecue enthusiasts, basic food handling errors still occur on a regular basis.
Improper food handling can be particularly prevalent when cooking outdoors, with food-borne illnesses quickly spoiling the fun for those impacted. The two main risk factors are undercooked meat and the spread of pathogens through cross-contamination. To keep everyone safe, essential food safety practices must be followed at all times.
Before firing up the grill, it is imperative that you understand the basics of safe food handling. This blog will highlight fundamental techniques for ensuring that the barbecue dishes you serve are both delicious and safe.
The Importance of Temperature Control
One of the primary concerns when barbecuing is maintaining the right temperature. It's not just about the heat of your grill but also about keeping your raw ingredients at safe temperatures before cooking.
Cold foods must be kept at or below 5°C until you are ready to cook them. When cooking, use a meat thermometer to ensure the core temperature reaches 75°C for minced meats, sausages and poultry, at least 63°C for whole cuts of beef and lamb, and 70°C for pork.
Raw meat can contain harmful pathogens such as Salmonella, E.coli and Listeria. Fortunately, it is possible to eradicate these pathogens by cooking meat thoroughly at the correct temperature.
Cross-Contamination: A Hidden Threat
Cross-contamination is a common issue associated with barbecuing. It happens when harmful pathogens from raw foods, especially meats, transfer to cooked or ready-to-eat foods. To avoid this, you should always use separate utensils, plates and chopping boards for cooked and uncooked foods. It is also crucial that hands are washed thoroughly after handling raw meat, poultry and seafood.
It is impossible to talk about Australian barbecues without mentioning prawns. Prawns are among the nation’s most popular outdoor cooking ingredients, but unless the relevant precautions are taken, they can become a breeding ground for harmful pathogens.
Thankfully, there are nine simple rules that can prevent food-borne illnesses from occurring.
- Always purchase prawns from a reputable, registered seafood supplier.
- When purchasing prawns, check that they look and smell fresh; raw prawns should have no blackening around the head or legs.
- Store prawns in a covered container on a low refrigerator shelf where they won’t come into contact with other food items.
- Keep prawns in their shells until it is time to prepare them; this makes it more difficult for harmful pathogens to spread through the prawn meat.
- Always wash your hands after handling raw prawns. Harmful pathogens can be transferred from the prawns onto your hands, which can then contaminate other food items.
- Consume prawns as soon as possible after purchase; ideally on the same day. Prawns can be kept in the refrigerator for up to three days.
- Dispose of any raw or cooked prawns that have been outside of the refrigerator for more than 2 hours.
- When cooking prawns, ensure that raw prawns don't come into contact with any ready-to-eat foods or pre-cooked items.
- Use separate plates and utensils for cooked and uncooked prawns.
It is also important to remember that many people are allergic to shellfish. In some cases, allergic reactions can be severe and even fatal. Be aware of guest dietary requirements and ensure that shellfish such as prawns are segregated from other food items.
Step-by-Step Guide to Safe Barbecuing
Five fundamental steps should be followed to prevent food-borne illnesses from ruining your summer barbecue.
- Preparation: Clean and sanitise your grill and workspace. Ensure all utensils are laid out and ready to use.
- Marinating: If you marinate meats, do it in the refrigerator, not on the counter.
- Cooking: Cook food thoroughly. Use a meat thermometer to check temperatures.
- Serving: Don’t leave food out for more than two hours. Reduce this to one hour in hot weather (over 32°C).
- Storing Leftovers: Refrigerate any leftovers promptly using airtight containers.
Common Barbecue Myths
Sadly, there is a lot of misinformation about barbecue food safety, opening the door to improper food handling and food-borne illnesses. Let’s debunk some all-to-familiar barbecue myths:
Myth: “If it looks cooked, it's safe to eat.”
Fact: Only a meat thermometer can confirm if the meat has reached a safe internal temperature.
Myth: “Marinating meat at room temperature helps it absorb flavours better.”
Fact: Marinating at room temperature can promote the growth of harmful pathogens. Always marinate in the refrigerator.
Myth: “All meat should be washed before grilling.”
Fact: Washing meat isn't recommended since it can spread harmful pathogens around your kitchen. Cooking meat to the right temperature is the only way to kill any pathogens that are present.
Our Top 10 Barbecue Food Safety Tips
To summarise, we have compiled a list of food safety practices to keep in mind when barbecuing this summer:
- Clean the grill before use, especially if you haven't used it for a while. Scrub it with bicarbonate of soda and rinse in warm, soapy water for the best results.
- Light the barbecue well in advance and ensure it is hot before placing food on the grill. For charcoal barbecues, remember that the flames need to die down before you start cooking (check that the coals have turned from black to white).
- Meat must be defrosted thoroughly in the refrigerator before cooking. Never defrost meat outdoors or at room temperature.
- Store raw meat in the refrigerator until you are ready to cook it.
- Keep raw meat away from ready-to-eat foods such as salads, sauces and burger buns.
- Always use different plates and utensils for cooked and uncooked meat.
- Consider pre-cooking food in the oven before finishing on the barbecue to give it a ‘grilled’ taste without compromising food safety.
- Turn the meat regularly when you're cooking to ensure it's cooked evenly throughout.
- Once you think your meat is sufficiently cooked, use a kitchen thermometer to check if the meat has reached the correct temperature.
- Ensure any barbecue leftovers you wish to eat later are refrigerated within two hours of being cooked. Once refrigerated, consume within three days.
Barbecue food safety is not just about following rules; it's about ensuring the health and well-being of yourself and your guests. By applying these tips and taking an online course on food safety, you'll be well on your way to becoming a barbecue expert.
Online Resources and Courses for Further Learning
If you’re keen to learn more about food safety, several online resources and training programs are available, providing valuable information that's easy to understand and put into practice.
Australian Institute of Food Safety (AIFS) membership provides access to a comprehensive resource library featuring detailed food safety guides and expert advice. AIFS also delivers nationally recognised training programs that cover a range of topics, including food safety standards, proper food handling techniques, and specific guidelines for different food types.