Barbecued Chicken - Look Before You Buy

Posted: June 25, 2012

Traveling in the summer is a great time to stop at road side stands selling BBQ chicken and pork sandwiches to eat a meal.

Besides these private vendors, many volunteer organizations prepare and serve barbecued food as a way to make money to support their activities. While theirs is a noble cause, it is important for those who frequent these food stands to know the signs of an organization or private vendor using good food safety practices. It can be a long ride if you are feeling the effects of a foodborne illness.

Martin Bucknavage, Food Safety Specialist at Penn State University, recommends the following food safety guidelines for groups preparing and serving a chicken barbecue or other food sale from a temporary facility. 

  • Cross contamination is a big issue with temporary food stands. Raw meat and poultry will most likely contain pathogenic bacteria such as Salmonella, E. coli, and Campylobacter. If a food handler is not using separate clean utensils, cutting boards, and trays, they can cross contaminate the cooked product with the raw juices containing these pathogenic organisms. It is very important for these vendors to have cleaning facilities to properly clean and sanitize work surfaces and utensils. At temporary sites, even three buckets to wash, rinse and sanitize can substitute for a three bowl sink.
  • Are they using thermometers? Color is not a good indicator of doneness. In too many instances, severe foodborne illnesses have resulted when hamburger and chicken have not been cooked to the proper temperature. Problems arose when the vendor had not cooked the item to the proper internal temperature. Cooks need to be using calibrated thermometers to check the temperature of foods during cooking and holding.
  • How are they storing their food? Often, volunteer organizations prepare large amounts of food at once, and then serve it over the course of the day. This prepared hot food needs to be kept hot, at 140ºF or higher, to prevent pathogenic organisms, such as Staphylococcus, from growing. Cold foods need to be kept cold. For safety, food should not be in the temperature danger zone of     40-140ºF for more than two hours.
  • Food also needs to be stored in proper food storage containers designed for keeping food hot. Bucknavage adds, “We know of a few organizations that use metal garbage cans for storing cooked food, such as barbecued chicken. This is an awful practice that does not adequately control proper temperature. Even worse, the food can react with the galvanized lining leading to zinc intoxication.” Lining the garbage can – even a new can – with a clean garbage bag is also a poor practice. Garbage bags are not virgin plastic and can leach unknown chemicals into food. Use only food grade plastic to store or protect food in food grade containers. A food grade container is one that is designed specifically for food.
  • Bucknavage advises consumers to see if food preparers and handlers are not only wearing gloves, but also changing them anytime they become unclean. Too often, poor personal hygiene leads to a foodborne disease. Workers contribute bacteria to the food with their hands after they have touched some unclean surface, their own hair, or raw food.

This information is not just for organizations who sell food. If you are barbecuing chicken in your backyard for a family gathering or party, the same rules apply – good personal hygiene, avoid cross contamination, and be sure the food is cooked to the proper internal temperature. 
So before you decide to buy food from a roadside stand or a volunteer group selling food, no matter how noble their cause, look at the food handling and serving practices of the vendors. If you have a doubt about the safety of the food, then walk away. You will be doing them and yourself a favor.