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Ask A Health Inspector

Q: Hello Mr. Jason! I love your "Ask A Health Inspector" articles. Aside from cooking safety advice, can you offer information on the upcoming solar eclipse?

-Winston

A:   "Without pause or preamble, silent as orbits, a piece of the Sun went away."
- Annie Dillard (1979)

Well Winston, I'm a health inspector, not an "astronomist" (That's a word…right?) but I enjoy a solar eclipse as much as the next guy. I remember back in the early 80s at my school, we all watched the eclipse and then went inside and had "solar sandwiches" for lunch.

If you follow the AAHI articles, you'll remember my summer grilling article about keeping things clean, separate, cooked thoroughly, and cooled properly. However, being the cotton-headed ninny-muggins I am, I failed to mention the final cooking temperatures for grilled meats.  The 2009 NC food code lists final cooking temperatures for all meats…and not just the good ol' ribeye or boneless, skinless chicken breast, but things you've never heard of….baluts for example…you know what that is? I'll bet you don't, because it's gross…but it's in there…look it up.

For this article, I'm going to use the grill as the main cooking source, but the final cook temperatures are the same no matter the method of applying heat. 

So let's say the eclipse is happening today, and you want to make sure that your pork shoulder roast (Boston Butt) is going to be safe. You might say, "Jason, how long do I need to keep my "Penumbra Pork" (the penumbra is the shaded region during an eclipse that is just outside the umbra, which is the darkest point during an eclipse) on the grill to ensure food safety?" Well, I'd probably tell you that what really matters is to get your Boston butt a food thermometer and cook it until it's at least 145 degrees F for 4 minutes. Now, speaking from experience, I would also tell you that for the best pork BBQ, (I'm talking completely fall apart BBQ) you're going to need to get that butt up to 195 degrees F, but that’s a personal preference.

Now, let's talk about steaks… those big, juicy, thick, prime cut, slabs of deliciousness. We can also throw seafood, and eggs in this category. The FDA (and the 2009 NC food code) recommends that seafood, eggs and steaks are cooked to an internal temperature of 145 degrees F and maintained for 15 seconds. That "Lunar Lamb Chop"? That’s going to need to reach 145 degrees too. "But Jason!" you're going to scream… "I like my steak rare, and 145 degrees is practically burnt!" "Well…" I'm going to respond… "I'm not the food police, if you want to eat your steak rare, I don’t care, that’s up to you! The FDA also says don’t eat raw oysters, but heck, we all know what I do…I mean I wrote an entire article on it, for Pete's sake! FDA is not the boss of me!"

Let's move on to ground meats, which is anything that is mechanically tenderized or ground up such as burgers, cubed steaks, or mixed species like meatloaf. Now when it comes to ground meats, I don’t take risks. I cook every ground meat item (except ground poultry) to 155 degrees F or above. Here's why: When meat is ground up, it is basically taken apart in shreds, and is then put back together. Every one of those little strands of meat now has the possibility of becoming contaminated. All that surface area is just right for picking up all kinds of contamination as they move through a grinder or cuber. Yummy! Now think about that steak we just talked about…how many sides does a steak have? Two! All you gotta do is kill the stuff on the surface of a steak, man! Doesn’t even matter how thick…As long you get it hot enough to kill the bacteria on the surface, you're fine.  But ground meat doesn’t work that way…you have to get every strand of that meat hot enough to kill that bacteria. 155 degrees is going to do that for you. So when you are waiting for the eclipse to start, and you want to get those "Besselian Burgers" (the Besselian elements are used to help calculate the path of the umbra and penumbra during an eclipse) done before the blackout, don’t listen to Bubba when he tells you he's been eating raw burger for years and he's fine…take a good look at Bubba…think about that…don’t be like Bubba.

Finally, chicken and other poultry.  Chicken is a little different than the other foods we've mentioned. We are looking for 165 degrees for 15 seconds here, but in my personal experience, just because it is safe to eat at 165, doesn’t necessarily mean it is desirable at 165. I like my "Corona Chicken" (the corona is the outer area of the sun that is only visible during a total eclipse) to cook a little longer and really get all the pink out. Products containing ground poultry (turkey burgers, chicken sausages, etc.) also need to reach 165. Baluts? Yep, 165. (I'm assuming you have already looked them up by now). 

Grilling: Before we go re-inventing the grill… (see what I did there?) you should know that restaurants mostly use gas for their grills. Food employees know where to put the meat on the grill, so that it's not necessary to stand over them wondering if the chicken is going to be burnt on the outside and raw in the middle. You can do the same thing at home. If you are using charcoal (my preference), start by piling all the charcoal to one side of the kettle and making a slight slope toward the middle. This gives you a nice area of super-hot at the back and kinda medium toward the center, and then a cool area on the other end. Same for gas grills… if you have 2 burners, you need one on and one off. 3 burners? One full blast, middle one medium, and 3rd one off completely. This setup is going to work for 95% (I'm totally making this number up, but you get the idea) of the things you are going to be grilling at home.

But at least now you can safely grill something wonderful on the day of the eclipse (August 21, 2017) instead of what you had originally planned…Moonpies and Tang with a side of starbursts, while listening to "Don’t Steal My Sunshine", and "Total Eclipse of the Heart", or maybe "Dancing in the Dark"…or "Blinded by the Light"… (I could go on all day…)

Enjoy the eclipse, friends!