Tips to avoid giving your barbecue guests food poisoning

Millions of people get food poisoning every year, many of them thanks to overlooking the basics of safe barbecuing. Here's what you need to know to ensure you're not one of them, writes Lisa Salmon

Barbecuing is something we do more in theory than in practice in Ireland, thanks to the weather, so it's good to be reminded now and then of the possible food safety pitfalls
Lisa Salmon (PA)

BARBECUE season is in full swing – in theory, at least, given the vagaries of Irish weather – and so is the increased risk of food poisoning. Every summer, the number of reported cases in the UK almost doubles – and that's just the people who make the effort to see a doctor. It's thought that for every one person who makes an appointment with their GP, there could be as many as 10 unreported cases.

The Food Standards Agency (FSA) says there are more than half a million reported cases of food poisoning from known pathogens (disease-causing microorganisms) in Britain and the north each year, and that figure would more than double if poisoning from unknown pathogens was included.

Symptoms include nausea and vomiting, diarrhoea, stomach cramps, weakness, loss of appetite and fever, and usually begin one or two days after eating contaminated food.

Shirley Cramer, chief executive of the health education charity Royal Society for Public Health, says: "Food poisoning in the UK is a vast and under-reported public health problem, but the good news is it's also highly preventable. No home can stay entirely germ-free, but by taking on-board some simple pointers about how germs spread, people can drastically reduce their chances of getting seriously ill.''

The charity's tips for how to stay safe around food include:

Wash your hands – regularly and thoroughly

Washing hands removes pathogens and stops them being transferred to another food – or directly into your mouth. All foods carry some bacteria, and the RSPH advises washing your hands whenever you're touching food, and even suggests wearing gloves. Antibacterial soap will help kill most germs and bacteria.

Just because it looks and smells OK, doesn't mean it's fine to eat

The RSPH points out that many of the most harmful and widespread pathogens can cause severe illness (and even death) when present only in very low numbers. Because of this, you won't be able to tell from the taste, appearance, smell, or texture of the food that it's contaminated. The charity's Andrew Green stresses: "Anything that's given moisture, time and temperature will start to have bacterial growth and multiply, and the more growth, the greater the chance to infect food.''

Use more than one pair of barbecue tongs

Many barbecue chefs spread pathogens via their equipment, by handling raw meat, cooked meat, and sometimes even salads with the same tongs. Though most people know to avoid this cross-contamination, and would do so in their kitchen, it's often forgotten when the barbecue is lit.

Segregate raw and ready-to-eat foods

The RSPH says many of us don't appreciate the higher risks of food poisoning from mixing raw meat with ready-to-eat food (even if it's just the tiniest of touches). Campylobacter is found on the outside packaging of 5.7 per cent of supermarket chickens, highlighting the importance of segregating food from the moment it hits the shopping trolley.

Don't wash raw chicken

Campylobacter, found on nearly 60 per cent of supermarket chicken, will be killed by thorough cooking, but could spread throughout a kitchen when people try to wash raw chicken under the tap.

Keep pets out of the kitchen

Pets wandering around the hub of the home is common practice in many homes. But the RSPH warns that even where pets are kept off work surfaces, they will still spread all kinds of pathogens. Ideally, they should be kept out of kitchens entirely.

Cook your barbecue meat properly

The FSA stresses that cooking food at the right temperature and for the correct length of time will ensure any harmful bacteria are killed. When cooking staple barbecue fare such as burgers and sausages, or chicken and pork, always check the meat is steaming hot throughout, there's no pink meat even in the thickest part, and the juices run clear.

Don't leave food out

Once served, dishes shouldn't be left out for longer than two hours, or one hour if the weather is very hot.

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