A recent USDA study found that nearly 98% of cooks do not wash their hands properly after handling raw meat. Sure, you may not die from it, but consider how many germs get from meat to the kitchen counters to your hands—and then into family mouths, all because you didn’t carefully clean up.
And if you think you can not get sick from that, you are sorely mistaken.
The CDC estimates that about 48 million Americans get sick from foodborne illnesses each year. We could quickly reduce these numbers by washing our hands after handling raw meat. Take 20 seconds to scrub down with soap and water before moving on to other ingredients and save your family the food poisoning.
If you do not already wash your hands after touching raw meat, take some time to read this guide. We will explain why it’s so important to be sure you are cleaning your hands properly—and the consequences for your family if you do not.
Why is Raw Meat Dangerous?
Every red-blooded American loves a good barbecue with steaks, burgers, chicken wings, and ribs. But have you ever thought about how mishandling all that raw meat might affect your health and that of your family?
Raw meat is a bacterial breeding ground teeming with tiny germs that would love to infect your body. As soon as you touch the meat, these bacteria stick to your hands and spread to everything else they touch.
Raw meat—especially chicken and pork—is a breeding ground for E. coli, Salmonella, Yersinia, and a host of other pathogenic bacteria (the kind that gets you sick).
When we ingest these germs, they settle in our digestive tract and begin to feed on the food we eat. When they consume our digestive byproducts, they produce toxic waste products that burden our bodies and lead to food poisoning.
As basic as food poisoning might sound, it can actually be pretty dangerous.
Prolonged cases of diarrhea and vomiting can lead to dehydration, malnutrition, and even hospitalization. It’s not uncommon for patients to need to go to ER for treatment of a severe case of E. coli or Salmonella.
When on grill duty, don’t put your family at risk by not washing your hands.
What is Cross-Contamination?
The most dangerous thing about raw meat is that bacteria don’t just stick to meat—they also stick to you and everything else you touch.
It’s not uncommon for cooks to handle raw meat, wipe their hands on a dishrag or kitchen towel, and then quickly move on to the next task. Unfortunately, with all this activity, you are still carrying the bacteria around with you.
When you pick up your knife to chop vegetables for the grill, the bacteria spread to your knife and then to the vegetables. Even if you take the time to wash your hands after cutting the vegetables, your knife and towel are still contaminated. This is what is known as cross-contamination.
In other words, even if you wash your hands later in the cooking process, all the tools and utensils you touched after handling meat contain the same bacteria as the raw meat.
Unless you take the time to sanitize them by washing them with dish soap and warm water, every step in the cooking process that involves them is then contaminated with disease-causing bacteria.
How to Properly Wash Your Hands
Look, we get it—no one likes to be preached to. Everyone knows it’s important to wash their hands when cooking, yet sometimes it falls by the wayside in the heat of the moment when prepping and barbecuing.
So how exactly should you wash your hands to avoid cross-contamination and poisoning your family at the next cookout?
It’s pretty simple:
- Start by approaching the faucet with the right mindset. Remember, if you grab the handle with your touch, meaty hands, you will cover it with E. coli and Salmonella. Instead, use your elbow to pry it up and turn on the water;
- Don’t touch the soap dispenser! Your hands are still crawling in bacteria, remember? Instead, use your forearm to press down on the dispenser and get a big, ole’ dollop of soap in your hand.
- Wet your hands and begin rubbing the soap between both palms to create a rich, soapy lather;
- Spread the lathered soap up through your fingers and under your nail beds. Don’t be afraid to get in there and rub your nails against the palm of your other hand;
- Scrub for at least 20 seconds before you rinse away the soap;
- Dry your hands with a clean towel, and then shut off the water.
Proper hand-washing will keep your kitchen clean and your family safe from Montezuma’s revenge.
Don’t Forget to Clean Surfaces
Your hands are not the only thing you need to clean in the kitchen. Raw meat can get bloody, and when you cut it on a board in the kitchen, it’s not uncommon for some of the meat juice to spill out and run all over the kitchen counter. When that happens, you need to be prepared to clean up.
Start by moving the cutting board, wooden or plastic, into the sink and give it a good wash using water that’s at least 110°F. Follow the same advice as above to turn on the faucet—or else you’ll risk contaminating your sink. Once the board is clean, move it to a safe area to dry and clean out your sink.
Using a clean washrag, pour some warm water over your counters along with some soap. Scrub the counters for at least 20 seconds to kill any bacteria before introducing new tools and ingredients.
Inspect the area and look for any possible spillage onto the floor, cabinets, door handles, or even the refrigerator. If you find blood splatter, repeat the process.
Be Careful with Meat Packaging
Most meat is packaged in a Styrofoam carton with an absorbent gauze pad and sealed with saran wrap. Although it may look fairly sterile when purchased at the store, meat packaging can be another common source of cross-contamination in the kitchen. Therefore, be careful when handling them.
Gauze padding is used to soak up blood and other meat juices that escape after slaughter. It prevents liquids from leaking during transport, but it is also a huge breeding ground for bacteria. The same is true for cling film.
Remember that the wrapping is in direct contact with the meat—including the pathogenic bacteria—so throw it away carefully.
After removing the meat from the package, carry the carton and gauze pad directly to your trash can. If your trash can has a lid, remove the lid with your foot. Place the package in the trash can and keep it away from the edge to prevent further contamination. Close the trash can and wash your hands.
Is it Safe to Eat Rare or Medium Rare Meats?
I know what you are thinking… “Sammy! With all this talk about bacteria and cross-contamination, how can I still enjoy my medium-rare porterhouse steak?”
Well, it all comes down to the type of meat you are preparing. To put it simply, some meats are safe to eat at lower temperatures, and others not:
- You should cook beef, pork, veal, and lamb to an internal temperature of at least 145°F, as measured with a meat thermometer, and let the meat rest for at least 3 minutes after removing it from the grill;
- As a general rule of thumb, ground red meat should be cooked to a minimum internal temperature of 145°F, and ground poultry to 165°F;
- Fish and shellfish can safely be eaten when they have been cooked to a minimum internal temperature of 145°F, with no resting time required;
- All poultry products, from whole birds to breasts, tenders, thighs, and wings, should be cooked to a minimum internal temperature of 165°F, and should never be eaten undercooked.
Follow these guidelines, all of which come from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food and Safety Inspection Service, and you should be safe!
Don’t let food poisoning ruin your next family barbeque. Take the time to understand proper kitchen hygiene and wash your hands for at least 20 seconds after handling meat.
The more you work to prevent cross-contamination in the kitchen, the healthier and happier your family will be at the next family social event.