05/14/2012 02:34 EDT | Updated 07/14/2012 05:12 EDT

Clean, cook, separate and chill to keep family, friends safe during grilling season

TORONTO - The days of relaxed entertaining with families and friends gathering around backyard barbecues are upon us. But outdoor cooking can have health risks if certain steps are not taken, say public health officials.

"All year long we need to be really careful about how we manage food, how we handle food, from cleaning, separating, cooking and chilling," Dr. Robin Williams, associate chief medical officer of health for Ontario's Health Ministry, said in an interview.

"Now clearly when you move into the warm weather families get more relaxed at all levels. We move outdoors, perhaps we put things out on counters a little earlier than we should or we leave them sitting out in the sunshine because we're enjoying a barbecue in the backyard.

"We don't have to worry about leaving our groceries in the car in the chill of January, but you need to change your thinking when you come to June, July and August."

The result of improper handling or preparation of food can be a nasty bout of food poisoning. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency estimates there are about 11 million cases of foodborne illness in Canada every year.

To avoid having illness haunt you or your guests after a party or other event, just remember four key points: clean, cook, separate and chill, said Williams, who is based in Toronto.

Cleanliness when handling food is paramount.

"Your hands need to be clean, the things that you cook with need to be clean, you need to make sure the surfaces you're working on are clean," said Williams.

Soap and water are perfectly good for washing hands, Williams said. Hand sanitizer is fine too — "whatever is easier."

Sanitize countertops and use separate cutting boards for anything that can cross-contaminate, such as poultry, raw meats and fish. When defrosting them in the refrigerator, put a plate underneath so they don't drip onto anything else.

Cook food thoroughly at the correct temperatures. Most food poisoning happens when people eat food that contains harmful bacteria, viruses or toxins. You may not see, smell or taste them, but harmful organisms can multiply rapidly in the danger zone between 4 C and 60 C (40 F and 140 F).

"Don't get too relaxed and leave things sitting out either in the sun or on a counter while you're trying to assemble the family," said Williams. "Anything out on a counter for more than two hours needs to be refrigerated or dispose of it.

"If you leave the potato salad out all afternoon, you know what? Bye, bye."

And don't give it to your pets either. They also can get ill.

After grocery shopping or when you're on the way to the cottage or a party, keep food cool and refrigerate it as soon as possible after arrival.

Marinating should be done in the refrigerator and marinade should be tossed after use.

Anyone is susceptible to food poisoning, but young children, pregnant women, people over age 60 and those with compromised immune systems may be more at risk based on other illnesses or treatments.

Signs of food poisoning include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, fever and stomach cramps. In serious cases, certain types of food poisoning can cause the victim to have trouble swallowing or breathing, double vision and nervous system problems like paralysis.

Onset of symptoms can vary.

"With some kinds of food poisoning it can be two to four hours, with other kinds it's eight to 12 hours and with others it can be days," she said.

In general, mild flu-like symptoms are probably going to be underdiagnosed, Williams said. But in cases where there is extensive diarrhea or blood in the diarrhea, people usually consult a health-care professional.

"If it's a disease of significance where there might be a contaminated food product that you've brought into your home that we need to sort out and trace back, then that's where public health becomes involved," said Williams.

Your grilling equipment should also be clean and well maintained.

Before firing up your barbecue for the season, grilling specialist Ted Reader advises cleaning out particles, dust and cobwebs that may have built up over the winter. Remove grates and clean thoroughly with soap and warm water. Clean burner ports to ensure they're free of dirt and rust.

“There are many safety elements that most folks forget to check, and can potentially be very dangerous,” Reader said in a release.

Here are some more tips from Reader to ensure a safe barbecuing season:

Check that connections are tight and that there are no leaks. You can brush a mixture of soap and water onto the connections and hoses (a 50/50 mix) and any rising bubbles will indicate a leak.

Rusty, damaged propane tanks should be replaced.

Position your grill in an open area away from enclosures and overhangs for ventilation and safety reasons.

If a grease fire occurs, turn off burners and fuel source, close the lid and let the fire burn out on its own. You will know it’s a grease fire if you see billowing black smoke and large orange flames. Baking soda is also a good option for controlling a grease fire.

If you burn yourself, run the affected area under cool water for five minutes. If your burn is serious (charring, blistering) seek medical attention immediately.

Williams also advises not breathing in any smoke wafting from the barbecue as that can carry dangerous particulate matter.

"Celebrating life, celebrating family, those are so important for family development, early childhood development, all those things. I'm a pediatrician by background and I care deeply about that," she said. "

"On the other hand we need due attention to safety, food safety, accident prevention and that includes barbecue, barbecue burning, falls."



For more information, visit

For additional information on grilling, visit Ted Reader's site: