Meat Perspectives: Cooking low, slow and safely | 2021-07-26

There seems to be no end to the growing popularity in all things barbecue. From the backyard enthusiasts who enjoy preparing barbecue on weekends and holidays for their families and friends to the restaurant operators whose livelihood depends on great reviews, top rankings from magazines and websites, a steady stream of customers, good luck, and the right timing, barbecue seems to be such a great food category that consumers enjoy so much.

Because barbecue is prepared in so many ways and by so many people with different levels of experience and training, making sure that the best food safety practices are followed will minimize risks and will help ensure that families, friends, and customers are kept safe.

Although food safety best practices are not confined to barbecue, there are some unique features to barbecue’s preparation, holding and serving where problems may occur that could impact the safety of the product. Developing an understanding of basic food safety guidelines will help protect everyone from the preparer to the consumer.

Commercial barbecue and restaurant operators are required to follow various national, state and local rules and regulations regarding food preparation and safety procedures that are often accompanied by permits, inspections and training. Those who occasionally prepare barbecue for family and friends may not be as familiar with some basic steps to keep food safe. Regardless of the preparer’s expertise level or the audience being served, it is helpful to review some of the key factors related to food safety.

Biological hazards

There is always a risk of foodborne pathogens being associated with raw beef, pork and poultry, which are the major proteins used for barbecue. These pathogens may include Salmonella, E. coli O157:H7 and other STECs (Shiga toxin-producing Escherichia coli), Campylobacter jejuni, and others that may cause problems if not properly controlled and handled. These pathogens are heat sensitive and are destroyed when sufficient internal temperatures have been achieved during cooking. Most types of barbecue, such as briskets and Boston butts or whole pork shoulders used for pulled pork, have no problem reaching these temperatures because they are cooked to higher degrees of doneness necessary for tenderness in the case of briskets or for the ease of pulling for pork. While there is no specific temperature to reach these quality endpoints, most products may be in the 185°F to 205°F range when removed from the cooking device (pit, oven, grill). These higher temperatures far exceed those needed to eliminate the pathogens.

Not all barbecue cuts are destined to be cooked to these advanced degrees of doneness. Santa Maria-style tri-tips, beef prime rib and tenderloins, pork loins, and most poultry cuts are cooked to reach minimum temperatures or combinations of temperatures and times necessary to ensure that both safety and unique quality characteristics of the products are created. Additionally, ground or comminuted products such as sausages, meat loaves and hamburgers, can be smoked or grilled, but these products require higher internal temperatures than the intact cuts. Three general internal endpoint temperatures are used for most meat and poultry cuts to ensure safety: 145°F with a 3-minute rest for intact beef, pork and lamb steaks, chops and roasts; 160°F for ground beef, pork and lamb; and 165°F for all poultry.

Accurately measuring internal temperatures of meat products requires good equipment. There are a variety of excellent quality hand-held thermometers and digital temperature monitors with probes that can be used to check temperatures remotely, all of which provide key tools in making sure that proper endpoint temperatures have been met.

Meeting minimum cooking temperatures is just the first step in ensuring protection from foodborne pathogens. Troubles arise in two other areas related to barbecue: cross contamination and improper hot holding or post-cooking chilling. Cross contamination primarily occurs when raw and cooked products come in contact or when surfaces, pans and trays, and utensils used to prepare raw products are used with cooked products. Placing cooked products on cutting/serving boards where raw products were first prepared is a great example of how easy it is for cross contamination to occur. Practicing good personal hygiene, proper hand washing and sanitation, using clean aprons, gloves, hand towels, and other items that come in direct contact with food, are vital steps necessary to reduce food safety risks.

Failure to keep hot foods hot and chilling cooked foods too slowly can cause the formation of toxins, especially those originating from Clostridium perfringens. US Department of Agriculture temperature stabilization guidelines require that once non-cured cooked meat products decline in internal temperature to 130°F, they have 1-1/2 hours to reach 80°F and five hours to continue to 40°F. Some restaurants place finished products in hot-holding cabinets to keep hot foods hot until serving time. The challenge faced by many who cook at home or in restaurants with limited capacity to chill products rapidly and sufficiently is to hit these important chilling requirements. Even in the best of conditions, commercial meat processing operators that prepare barbecue for retail and foodservice establishments struggle in meeting these temperature and time parameters primarily because many of the large-size products such as cooked briskets are slow to chill even with more efficient chilling systems than would be found in restaurants and especially at home.

Because brisket is cooked to an internal temperature of between 185F and 215F, there is little concen of foodborne pathogens surviving in the meat.

Physical hazards

Foreign material and other physical hazards include items that could harm or injure people during consumption. The primary items are glass (shards), wood (splinters), metal (shavings, nails, screws) and plastic (hard, sharp kinds). While we do not think about these items showing up in barbecue, they can definitely injure someone, if present.

Wherever barbecue items are being prepared, care must be taken to be sure there is no glass in the area, that there are no metal fragments, that knives are in good shape and intact, and that plastic trays, tubs and containers are not cracked or broken. Additionally, plastic bottles and caps used to hold seasonings should be out of the way and when empty, be properly disposed of. While it may be difficult to have whole muscle cuts contaminated with these items, for those who make their own sausage, this process has more chances to contaminate the product with foreign materials and physical food safety hazards.

One area of food safety concern is when fragments from wire brushes used to clean grills get attached to foods and are ingested causing gastrointestinal issues sometimes requiring surgery. Many times, these wire brushes are used infrequently, which allows the wires to rust and break off when cleaning the grill grates. Some barbecue restaurants use wire brushes to clean the grates and pit surfaces and in the final step of cleaning, will use a propane-fired torch to burn the areas where the brush was used so that any wire remnants are eliminated by the heat. Regardless, it is important to be aware that anything that comes in contact with the cooking surfaces can be a potential contaminant with the foods being prepared.

Chemical hazards

There are a variety of issues related to chemical hazards, but two of them are most prominent. First are food allergens. The “Big Eight” food allergens are eggs, milk, soy, wheat, peanuts, tree nuts, fish and shellfish. Food preparers should make sure that if they make foods with these ingredients, they inform consumers of it. It is advisable to look at the ingredients of pan release sprays, which may contain items like soy lecithin, or the ingredients of sauces and spices that may contain allergens, too. Foods sold under federal/state laws have specific labeling requirements for declaring allergens. Some restaurants will ensure that menu descriptions clearly point out those items with allergens. Regardless of size of an operation, everyone should vigilantly work to prevent cross contamination with allergens by practicing good cleaning, preventing cross-contamination between products with allergens and those without, and practicing proper storage of items with allergens.

Another common problem is with unintended chemical contamination. This is where something unapproved or inappropriate is mistaken for an approved ingredient or substance. Academic food safety lectures on this topic are filled with anecdotes over the years regarding how various unapproved items were mistakenly used. Kitchen cabinets, pantries, storage cabinets and barbecue trailers should be searched for items that could be mistaken for food ingredients and cleaning items but are not and should not be used on food or food contact surfaces. Always check that whatever is used on and around food is approved for that use.

Ensuring food safety of foods is a priority for everyone. Having knowledge of what the biological, physical and chemical hazards can be and how they can be controlled is the first step in making sure that everyone’s memory of your barbecue is because of how it was enjoyed and nothing else.