They say that the most important device a home chef can have in their kitchen is the meat thermometer. Not just because temperature makes the difference between a perfectly-cooked steak and one that tastes more like beef jerky, but meat thermometers can also ensure that your meat is safely prepared.
What's tricky, however, is that when you're at so many summer outings, you can't always control who's manning the grill or how your food is prepared. One sketchy piece of maybe grilled chicken can have you questioning whether or not you'll be strapped to the toilet for the rest of your beach vacation. So, are you doomed if you eat a piece of meat that doesn't seem like it was cooked all the way through?
This is a very difficult question to answer without knowing the type and cut of meat, how the animal was raised, how it was processed, and whether or not it's organic, explains Ray Gamble, PhD, director of the Fellowship Programs Office of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, who has studied public health and food safety. All of these factors — and then some — can affect the risks associated with eating undercooked meat.
In general, we know that undercooked or raw meat and poultry can be contaminated with harmful bacteria, such as Campylobacter, E.coli, Salmonella, Clostridium perfringens, and Yersinia, according to the Centers for Disease Control. In the summertime, food-borne illnesses are more common because the bacteria thrive in warm conditions.
When ingested, these strains of bacteria can make you really sick. Typically, symptoms of contamination can include diarrhea, stomach cramps, vomiting, and a fever, per the CDC. This can strike between six and 24 hours after eating poorly cooked meat, and last between 24 hours and many days depending upon the type of bacteria.
Reading labels and following cooking instructions are the easiest ways to protect your health when you're cooking or consuming meat, Dr. Gamble says. If you're in charge of grilling, the CDC recommends keeping meat, poultry, and seafood chilled until it's ready to cook, and transporting it in a cooler. It's incredibly important to wash your hands, surfaces, and utensils in between handling raw meat, and don't let raw meat juices get on anything.
Beyond avoiding contamination, the CDC recommends using a meat thermometer to ensure that your meat products are cooked thoroughly enough to kill the bacteria. After grilling, meat and poultry should be 140 degrees or warmer until it's served. If you're not totally sure whether or not the meat or poultry was cooked well, your best bet might be to stick to the veggie options. (Although, raw fruits and vegetables can sometimes be contaminated with bacteria.)
If all else fails and you do come down with an unfortunate case of food poisoning from undercooked meat, then stay hydrated, and see a doctor or healthcare provider if your symptoms don't go away for a few days, or if you develop a fever. And maybe consider taking over grilling duties next time there's a BBQ.