Chow Line: Grilling this Weekend? Use Meat Thermometer to Increase Food Safety

USDA advises consumers to use a food thermometer to accurately measure if meat is cooked to a high enough internal temperature to destroy any harmful bacteria. Photo: Thinkstock.

My dad considers himself a grill master, but I think some of his techniques are questionable, like marinating the meat in a dish on the countertop or checking the doneness of burgers or chicken by color. What can I tell him to convince him these methods aren’t safe?

Your dad is not alone — many people use color as an indicator of doneness when grilling meats. In fact, according to recent research by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration, only 34 percent of the public uses a food thermometer when cooking hamburgers.

But, in order to avoid foodborne illness, the USDA advises consumers to use a food thermometer to accurately measure if meat is cooked to a high enough internal temperature to destroy any harmful bacteria such as salmonella and E. coli that may be present.

The safe minimum cooking temperature for ground meats, including beef, pork, veal and lamb, is 160 degrees. Turkey and chicken should be cooked to an internal temperature of 165 degrees, according to USDA. Steak and pork can be safely cooked to 145 degrees.

To get the most accurate temperature reading, you should place the meat thermometer in the thickest part of the food to gauge its temperature.

In addition, USDA says you should allow a three-minute rest time after removing the meat from the heat source. During this rest time, the temperature of the meat remains constant or continues to rise and destroys any pathogens that may be present.

The problem with using color as an indicator of doneness for ground beef, for instance, is if raw ground beef is somewhat brown already, it may look fully cooked before it reaches a safe temperature. Different levels of oxygenation at different locations inside and on the surface of the meat can cause the meat to look red on the outside and brown on the inside.

So if the meat is already brown, it won’t change color during cooking, USDA says.

On the question of marinating meats and poultry, it’s safest to do so in a tightly sealed container in the refrigerator kept at 40 degrees or colder, or in an iced cooler if you are transporting the food. This is because bacteria that can cause foodborne illness grow rapidly at room temperature.

Keeping these safety tips in mind can help you have enjoyable backyard BBQs this spring and summer without the worry of getting sick from eating undercooked meats.

Other tips for safe grilling from USDA and the National Fire Protection Association include:

  • Propane and charcoal BBQ grills should be used only outdoors.
  • The grill should be placed well away from the home, deck railings, and out from under eaves and overhanging branches.
  • Keep your grill clean by removing grease or fat buildup from the grills and in trays below the grill.
  • Never leave your grill unattended.
  • For charcoal grills, use only lighter fluid designed for grilling. Never use gasoline or other flammable liquids, and never add more lighter fluid once the fire has started.
  • Don’t cover or store your grill until it has cooled, and soak coals with water before throwing them away.

Chow Line is a service of the College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences and its outreach and research arms, OSU Extension and the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center. Send questions to Chow Line, c/o Tracy Turner, 364 W. Lane Ave., Suite B120, Columbus, OH 43201, or

Editor: This column was reviewed by Jenny Lobb, Family and Consumer Sciences educator for Ohio State University Extension

Tracy Turner
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Jenny Lobb
Family and Consumer Sciences