Food makes friends and loved ones feel connected to each another. As we gather around the grill this summer and spend time at picnics, potlucks and reunions, food is likely to be a popular topic of conversation. In some cases, it may spark a lively debate.
For example, when little Sally drops her hotdog on the ground, deliberation may begin among the parents about the validity of the “five-second rule.” And when Uncle Joe’s famous burgers come off the grill medium to rare on the inside, it might spur a conversation about “how pink is too pink” for ground beef. When Grandpa swears the potato salad is still “just fine to eat, don’t be ridiculous” after sitting out in the hot summer sun for two hours, dialogue may ensue.
Cari Lingle, 3M Food Safety microbiologist, sheds some light on these – and other – food safety questions to ensure we head to our summer celebrations armed with science-based answers that will help settle these age-old food safety arguments once and for all.
1. Is the “five-second rule” really a thing?
This argument is such a common one that there’s even a MythBusters episode about it. Spoiler alert: the answer is, no. “The five-second rule definitely is not a thing,” says Cari. “Once the food comes into contact with the floor – or any other surface – the bacteria can immediately be transferred onto the surface of the food.” Sorry, Sally.
2. How long can that mayonnaise-based macaroni salad or potato salad sit out at the family picnic?
All foods sitting at temperatures above 40 degrees Fahrenheit (meaning outside of your refrigerator) should not be left out for more than two hours. And that time starts to decrease on hot, summer days. If it’s 90 degrees Fahrenheit at your picnic, says Cari, food should not be out more than one hour. “The warmer it is, the more ideal the conditions are for bacteria to grow, and the faster they’ll start to grow, creating levels of bacteria that can become so high the food can become unsafe to eat.
3. Some people like their burgers pink in the middle – is that a bad idea?
“Yes, it’s a very bad idea,” says Cari. Here’s why: Mechanical mincing and grinding of beef will take bacteria that are on the outside of the slab of meat and turn it into a uniform mixture of bacteria in the ground beef. If any harmful bacteria exist on the outside, they get mixed in with the rest, so the harmful bacteria end up in the middle of your burger. If you don’t cook the middle of the burger to the proper temperature – 160 degrees Fahrenheit for beef – that bacteria would still survive and could cause illness.
4. How about pork chops? Can pork be pink and still safe to eat?
Historically, people have been afraid of eating pork that was pink in the middle – or not fully cooked – because of a parasite known as Trichinella. “But the pork industry has done a lot of work in the last 50 years to reduce the presence of this parasite in these animals, and for that reason, they’ve changed the guidelines to be cooked to a temp of 145 degrees,” she says. Once the pork reaches that temperature, the Trichinella worm and any harmful bacteria will be killed, and it’s considered safe to eat – even if the meat is still pink in color. When it comes to ground pork or bratwurst, however, cook it completely – for the same reasons as ground beef.
5. What are the top things I need to keep in mind while handling raw chicken?
Americans eat more chicken every year than any other meat, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But raw chicken is often contaminated with Campylobacter bacteria and sometimes with Salmonella bacteria, so it’s important we take special precautions when prepping poultry. Cari offers these five tips:
6. Is the organic and locally-grown food I buy at the farmer’s market safer than what I buy at the grocery store?
It turns out that the organic or locally grown products we buy are not necessarily safer than anything we can purchase at the grocery store. All food products – conventional or organic – must meet the same safety criteria, and they’re all held to the same standard. Cari is a regular farmer’s market shopper, and she offers this advice: “You can always ask the farmer, ‘Has this produce been washed? What do you use to wash it? How has this been stored? When did you harvest it?’ Ask the seller questions about how they ensure the food is safe. When you’re satisfied with the answer, continue going back to the seller you trust.”
7. How often should I clean my refrigerator’s produce bin?
We tend to dump our produce in the vegetable bin of our refrigerators and then forget about it. When we find it weeks later, it has turned slimy and mushy and maybe even grown a little mold. This can be a food-safety hazard, “because even at refrigeration temperatures, bacteria are still capable of growing if they have nutrients, and that bacteria can cross-contaminate other foods in the bin,” Cari says. Even those little bits of lettuce or carrots left in the bottom of the bin help the bacteria survive. Her suggestion? Set a regular produce bin-cleaning schedule. “My rule of thumb is this: Clean out the bin as often as you buy groceries. If your schedule is buying groceries once a week, I recommend cleaning out your produce bin once a week. That will help to prevent any contamination from the previous week getting on to the new vegetables.”
8. Do I really need to wash the outside of the watermelon, cantaloupe or even avocadoes before I cut them up?
We should always try to do the best we can to minimize bacteria on the surface before we cut into it, says Cari. The good news? Water is all it takes. “Rinsing with water or some light scrubbing with a clean brush will do the trick,” Cari says. “There’s no need to use soap or detergent to wash fruits or vegetables. Light mechanical action – or scrubbing – is all you need to do to dramatically decrease the odds of the inside of the fruit being contaminated once it’s cut."