By Jason Masters
     Environmental Health Director

Grill by k8southern is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Re-inventing The Grill…


Q: Hello Jason. With summer fast approaching, my family is looking forward to spending more time outdoors. We love to grill out on our patio, but we have always been afraid of undercooking our food, so we end up burning or severely overcooking everything. Is there a safe way to move food from our normal kitchen area to our grilling area, and what are some tips we can use to help us maintain delicious, properly prepared meats and vegetables?


A: Hi Julie, I’m glad you asked this question. This is the time of the year when people start spending more and more time outside, with music playing, kids going crazy in the street, everybody wearing their shades until 10 PM…you know what I’m talking about. It’s only natural that somebody throws some meat on the grill and the next thing you know, BAM! Salmonellosis is running rampant.

Now, hopefully, none of us will experience this scenario this summer, and there are several things you can do to help avoid this. This is a good time to remember the “core four” rules of sanitation…

Clean-You want to make sure that everything that comes in contact with your food is clean. I’m talking about pans, cutting boards, utensils like tongs, knives, EVERYTHING. There is no easier way to contaminate your food than with dirty utensils.
Separate-This seems easy, but is sometimes surprisingly difficult. You must make sure that cooked food never comes in contact with utensils that have previously handled or touched raw meat.
Cook-Unless you haven’t been to a restaurant in the last 25 years, I’m sure you are familiar with the consumer advisory. It’s usually that tiny print at the bottom of the menu that talks about eating raw or undercooked food, and the possibility of becoming sick by consuming certain foods. (We will talk more about the consumer advisory in another issue…) Same rules apply at home…you want to make sure that all your food is completely cooked for food safety, but at the same time, you want to maintain quality by not overcooking. There is only one way to do this…~spoiler alert~-it’s not the poke and feel method, it’s not the cut and watch the juices to see if they run clear method, it’s not the “been on there for 2 and a half hours” method, and it’s not the “well, my brother-in-law always leaves chicken on the grill for 2 minutes per side and it’s the best! Ain’t never got sick yet” method. The only way to be sure a food is cooked is to use a food thermometer, and know the correct final cook temperatures for the food you are cooking. Now, with that being said, a chef or experienced cook may be able to tell when a food is properly cooked through learned methods and awareness of conditions, but to be on the safe side, I recommend using a food thermometer.
Cool or serve immediately-After your food is removed from the grill (or whatever method you are using) don’t let it sit around** while you finish that second gin and tonic. Hopefully you have prepared sides or other dishes that are ready to go when your food is removed from the grill. If you aren’t going to be eating the dish shortly after it is removed from the heat, you need to begin actively cooling the food to ensure it is not maintained in “the danger zone” (145 degrees F – 45 degrees F) for a long period of time.
If you are a long time reader of our “Ask A Health Inspector” column, you already know the importance of thoroughly washing your hands before, during, and after food preparation. It’s not OK to grab raw meat, slap it on the grill, and wipe your hands on your “AC/DC” T-shirt. Even Angus Young wouldn’t do that.

Other things to remember during the summer months include proper thawing, proper marinating, and correct holding temperatures. Putting a 2 pound package of frozen hamburger in the sink and letting it sit there all day because “Gotta get ready for tonight!” is not proper thawing. Safe methods for thawing food include placing it under running water of 70 degrees or less, as part of the cooking process (which I don’t recommend for burgers) or the preferred method of thawing; under refrigeration. Yes, it’s going to take a little more planning to remember to grab the meat out of the freezer, but hey, you’re reaching in there for ice anyway for that gin and tonic, right? It’s right there! Just grab it!

It is possible to safely thaw meat in the microwave, but be careful, as microwaves tend to fluctuate, and can pretty easily “over-thaw” something. Sometimes it’s hard to hide that really dry, overcooked part of a burger with cheese (yeah, I do that too…~wink~)

Marinating is an issue that we run across frequently as well. It is not safe to marinate something on the counter at room temperature. Many people think that because their marinade contains citrus juices, or salt, or hot sauce, or whiskey, or whatever, that microorganisms can’t grow. WRONG. Just as with cooked food, raw food held at “danger zone” temperatures can grow multitudes of bacteria. Yes, when you put the food on the grill and thoroughly cook it to its appropriate final cook temperature, the bacteria will be killed…BUT, what won’t be killed is toxins that the bacteria can produce. Toxins are made up of proteins, and technically aren’t “alive”, therefore they can’t be killed by heat. So be sure to marinate your food under refrigeration, and ensure that you are storing your foods correctly in the fridge. Don’t put your banana pudding under the marinating chicken. It’s a well-known fact that bacteria love banana pudding… (This is not true, and is just used as an illustrative point, but for real, don’t put raw, marinating foods above ready-to-eat foods. It is a really bad idea, and I would mark a restaurant for doing this and take points.) This leads us into correct holding temperatures.

If you are going to be holding foods they must be maintained at temperatures above 135 degrees F or below 45 degrees F. Holding at these temperatures will prevent the growth of harmful bacteria, and therefore be less likely to produce toxins, not to mention most people like their food hot, not tepid. I’m not one to cite etiquette, but it’s just not polite to serve your guests cold food.

So this summer, when you are out chilling with your buddies, hanging around, talking about how crazy the kids are, remember to be safe when Bubba tells you he’s just going in to grab another beer and that chicken that’s been sitting on the table since noon in his special blend of liquor and clam juice. It might not be the best idea to put Bubba in charge of the grill next week…if you live to see next week…

**By “sitting around” I mean left for longer than about 30 minutes or so. It is usually a good final cook step to let your food (especially meat) rest for a period of about 5-10 minutes before slicing or serving. This rest time will allow for the juices of the meat to redistribute, and will allow the food to reach its final cook temperature… (You DO know your final cook temperatures, right? If not, we will cover those in another issue. Sorry, you are not allowed to grill anything until you read that article…lol)-






By Jason Masters
     Environmental Health Director

Raw Oysters-Delicious or Gross?


Q: Hi Jason. I have a question about oysters. I love raw oysters, but I’m worried about eating them in the summer, because my Granny told me to never eat oysters in months with no “R”. Is this true? Why? Am I doomed to only eat oysters in the cold months?

A: Well Jamie, this is a very common question, and one that I’m glad you brought up, considering that May is the first month of the year with no “R”. (Convenient how that worked out, huh…) The old adage of not eating oysters in months with no “R” came about for very good reason. In the days of yore, when digging up your own oysters was commonplace, it was a bad idea to eat our little shelled friends in the summer months due to the red tide in warm water areas. The microscopic algae blooms of the red tide produce toxins, and introduce them into areas where shellfish are harvested, and the shellfish then absorb these toxins making them harmful to humans. The scientific community has, in recent years, decided to use the term Harmful Algal Blooms (HAB) rather than “red tide”. Why? Because scientists believe they need to overcomplicate things…Red tides (or HABs) have been documented in every coastal state, and occur almost every summer in Florida.

So, should you eat oysters in the summer months? Of course! (with some caveats…) They are delicious! (so long as you get them from a reputable source…) I like mine raw, with a mignonette (men-ya-NET), and some crackers! (they can also be accompanied by lemon juice, hot sauce, garlic, or any number of stomach churning toppings…)

Today, oysters from most grocery stores and/or restaurants come from commercially harvested areas, are regulated by the FDA, and are usually from cold water climates. In addition, at least here at our Health District, and throughout North Carolina, establishments that sell and/or cook shellstock are required to maintain the tags that are attached to bags of shellstock for a minimum of 90 days , record the date of last sale, and maintain them in the establishment in chronological order, just in case anyone does get sick.
Now, with all that being said, a bigger worry about eating oysters (at least raw oysters) is Vibrio parahaemolyticus (para-HEEMA-lit-a-cuss) and Vibrio vulnificus (vul-NIF-a-cuss). These two species of bacteria live and thrive in warm, salt water environments, and are associated with eating raw or undercooked seafood, particularly shellfish. A V. parahaemolyticus infection causes all the standard flu-like symptoms, (fever, chills, vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal pain, etc.) but most people make it through, without medication, in about 3 days or so. V. vulnificus, however, is a much meaner little fellow, and is particularly harmful to those who are immunocompromised. V. vulnificus can enter the body through ingestion, or through open wounds or cuts. Symptoms usually show up between 1 and 7 days after exposure, and can include similar issues to parahaemolyticus, but can include skin lesions, and shock. About 50% of patients die from a V. vulnicus infection, even with aggressive treatment. The good news is, only about 30 cases are reported in the United States per year. For you math nerds, that means about 0.6 cases per state, per year. Not enough for me to worry about, but if you are, you should know that heat kills all species of Vibrio. Heat is the ONLY thing that kills vibrio. Hot sauce will NOT kill vibrio. Lemon juice will NOT kill vibrio. Prayer will NOT kill vibrio.

So, while you may think a groovy vacation is digging oysters for your next shucking, while listening to “Pulling Mussels From a Shell” and “Rock Lobster”, it would be advisable to get all your shellstock from a reputable source, just so you live to see next year’s vacation…

Mignonette recipe
-2 tablespoons finely chopped shallot (or onion)
-About ½ cup red wine vinegar
-Salt and pepper to taste
-Combine all ingredients and chill (and I mean put into refrigeration, not just hang out on the couch listening to jazz…) until ready to serve.




By Jason Masters
     Environmental Health Director

Meat Meat Meat Is My Favorite Thing To Eat


Q: Jason…my favorite meat market (they have great haggis) has a score of 90! How is this possible? They don’t even cook anything!


A: Hey Adam, great question! Meat markets are those sacred spots, usually in grocery stores, that allow us the opportunity to pick out what slab of protein we want for dinner. From the elegant scallop, to the downright dirty rack of ribs, meat markets have most anything you need for that dinner, BBQ, low county boil, or whatever event might come your way. Let’s talk about how that place got a 90…

You are correct, most meat markets don’t cook anything. This should be a clue as to what caused your favorite spot to get that score. In the absence of cooking, the items we look at during an inspection are basically food storage and food holding. Remember that foods must be stored by final cook temperature. That means that foods that have the highest final cook temperature must be stored at the bottom. For instance, chicken has a final cook temperature of 165 degrees F. So, what’s going to happen if you put raw chicken over a raw hamburger? Well let’s say Bubba opens up the reach in cooler, and is looking for an ice cold cherry coke. He sees one in the very back, and as he’s reaching for it, he tips the chicken and the chicken juice just teeming with salmonella hits the burgers stored underneath. Let me tell you something…Bubba doesn’t care. As long as that chicken or burger didn’t hit the floor, he’s not worried about it, (and heck, most of the time, he wouldn’t care if it DID hit the floor, so long as nobody saw it). So, next thing you know, you’ve stopped by Bubbas Meat Market on your way home. The kids are screaming, the Sirius XM isn’t working right, your “check engine” light just came on, and you’re about to run out of gas. You need something quick and easy. Burgers! Easy! Fire up the gas grill, throw ’em on, and in 15 minutes, dinner is served. A perfect burger that just reached 155 degrees F. Everybody dig in, right? Wait a minute…remember when Bubba was reaching for that cherry coke? Oh yeah, salmonella from that juice was all over those burgers…Salmonella isn’t killed until 165 degrees F…Uh-oh…You’ve got a problem.

Food storage issues? That’s a 1.5 point violation right there, unless it’s a repeat, in which case it could be a 3 point violation.

With all those bacteria, viruses and parasites around raw meat, you would think it would be pretty important to keep everything clean, wouldn’t you? Well it is! Do you think Bubba takes time out of his day to mix up the proper concentration of chlorine sanitizer? Heck no! He’s busy, man! Got to get those ribeyes sliced, all that meat ground, and those birds cut up. Aww man! Bubba forgot to clean the slicer, grinder, and his knives yesterday. Oh well, let’s just wipe everything down with this rag, and throw it on the counter. No sanitizer? Dirty equipment? Another 1.5 point violation (or 3 if it’s a repeat), plus wiping cloths stored on counters and prep areas? Nope, sorry Bubba, cloths used for wiping must be stored in a sanitizer solution during pauses in use. Think it’s not a big deal? What about that chicken juice you just wiped up off the floor? I just watched you clean your knives with the same rag! That’s another .5 points.

Hey look over there! Meat on the floor over by the walk in cooler. Bubba had a delivery today! All those boxes of meat came in this morning, and you’ve been so busy you just haven’t had time to put them up? Well, I understand, but its 3:30 now…Improper cold holding? Another 1.5, (or 3 if rep….oh you get the idea…) plus food on the floor? .5 points.

Hey Bubba, what’s this chunk of meat over here by the slicer? It’s frozen, and you’re waiting on it to thaw so it will slice easier? Remember, frozen foods have to thaw under refrigeration or under running water. Improper thawing? .5 points. Bubba’s score is rolling downhill fast.

Hey Bubba, what’s in this Yeti 110? Uh, yeah, I can see it’s some meat…what I mean is, what is it, and where did it come from? It’s a goat carcass from Gambling Gary’s Goat Grocery? Yeah, that’s not an approved source, Bubba. That’s another 1 point. You’re going to need to get that ghastly gruesome goat gone…now.

Oh hey! Over here is a big chunk of meat sitting in one compartment of your 3 compartment sink! And I see you have some dirty knives and meat trays in the next compartment. Bubba, I’ve told you over and over that you can only use your 3 compartment sink for one thing at a time. You can’t have dirty utensils in the sink at the same time as prepped food. That’s another 1 point, because this is the 5th time I have marked this on your inspection.

I see your dumpster doors are open, and as usual, the drain plugs are missing. In reviewing your past inspections, I see we have marked drain plugs missing 6 times. This is a repeat violation, so that’s another 1 point gone. You just can’t let delicious trash juice keep leaking all over the parking lot. Insects and rodents love it! And if they can find their way to your dumpster, they can find a way in to your meat market, Bubba.

OK Pal, we are almost finished with your inspection. Just show me your food protection manager training certificate, and I’ll get this all typed up. What’s that? You are not a certified food protection manager? Aww man, that’s another 2 points. Remember, a certified food protection manager must be onsite at all times of operation.

So Adam, by my count, that’s 11 points worth of violations right there, which would give Bubbas Meat Market a score of 89. Believe me friends, it can and does happen. If your favorite meat market has a low score, you need to be asking yourself “why?” Remember, all of our inspections can be found online at It is an invaluable tool, and I strongly encourage you to use it.

Stay safe, friends!






By Jason Masters
     Environmental Health Director

Common Food Myths


Q: Hi Jason, long time reader, first time writing in… I just found some leftover lasagna in my fridge. I don’t know how long it has been there, but it doesn’t smell bad, so it’s safe, right?


A: Oh. My. God. Becky. Look at that myth…

This leads me into a whole section I like to call… Fact or Fiction

So, my question is, who leaves lasagna in their fridge that long? Lasagna is delicious.

In North Carolina, according to the NC food code manual, a food can be held for 7 days at 41 degrees F or below. Don’t know the temperature of your fridge? Pick up one of these.

And remember, the ambient temperature of your refrigerator needs to be about 38 degrees F to maintain 41 degrees F in food.

There is no way to accurately determine if a food is safe to eat based on smell, look, taste, sliminess, length of fur, whether or not your brother-in-law would eat it, etc. Just because there may be a visible lack in quality doesn’t necessarily mean a food isn’t safe to eat, but the best recommendation I can make is, “when in doubt, throw it out.”

These apples are organic, so I’m just going to dig right in…yum, yum…crunchy!

Just because a food is labeled as organic or all natural doesn’t automatically make it safe to eat as is. The term “organic” usually applies to foods that are grown without the use of pesticides or synthetic fertilizers. Meat or dairy products labeled as “organic” are fed diets that are lacking in hormones and antibiotics. Before a product can be labeled as “organic”, a government entity (the USDA, through the National Organic Program) must certify the farm (or farms) as meeting strict criteria known as the USDA organic standards. And while the organic movement is growing in the United States, as well as here in Buncombe County, the organic standards say nothing about bacteria or viruses that may come in contact with the product. E. Coli (as well as other toxin producing bacteria, and viruses) is very prevalent in soil and water runoff, and frequently comes in contact with produce. The best routine is to simply wash all produce under running water.

I just got home from my favorite restaurant, and now I’m feeling sick. It must have been the two dozen raw oysters, XXtra hot wings, and two margaritas followed by a 3 egg omelet, right? I don’t think I can ever eat these foods again, or smell tequila, or look at oyster shells, etc. etc.…

While this…eclectic…combination of foods may cause even the most iron-gutted of us to cringe, it is USUALLY not what you most recently ordered at “Vibrio’s Oyster and Omelet Shack”* that got you sick. Although there are some cases of the onset of symptoms of foodborne illness occurring within 1-2 hours, these are associated with added ingredients or methods of preparation (i.e. foods cooked in metal lined cans, or the addition of metallic salts) or allergic reactions (MSG, or certain histamines associated with fish). Most true foodborne illness symptoms occur several hours to days after ingestion. Norovirus, a very common foodborne illness, for example, usually takes 12-48 hours to show up. And believe me, when it does, you will know. If you think you are becoming sick, try to remember the last several places you have eaten. It will be important to know these things when you call to inform the environmental health department of your illness…(you DO call and report your foodborne illness, right?) Also, go to the doctor. They will be able to confirm that what you are experiencing is actually a food borne illness, and not just indigestion…(plop plop, fizz fizz)

I just dropped my cheeseburger on the ground, but it’s cool, because, 5 second rule, right? Fact or fiction?

My personal favorite of all the food myths…

The real answer is: Partially fiction (or partially fact, if you are one of those half-full people). It really depends on the food, and the floor. The best explanation may be in the form of an example. Let’s say you dropped your pretzel on a hardwood floor.

Because both the pretzel and the hardwood floor are dry, transference of bacteria MAY be at a minimum. Now, if the floor was wet because you spilled all the juice out of the chicken package, OR if the pretzel is wet because your 3 year old licked all the salt off, well then, that’s a different story (and it might be a good idea to get your kids blood pressure checked). Same deal if it’s a wet food and dry floor. A cheeseburger dropped on a dry floor is probably going to pick up some nasty stuff. And of course, moist food and moist floor (or ground), well, that’s just a recipe for disaster. Bacteria don’t have a time limit on how quickly they jump on foods. It’s really fun to drop your chocolate chip cookie in front of your kids and yell “5 SECOND RULE!!” before wrestling it out of their hands, but the best course of action is to consider this a teaching moment, and err on the side of caution, and discard the food.

You can reach the food and lodging division of the environmental health section at 828-287-6317 (Rutherford), 828-894-8004 (Polk), or 828-652-2921 (McDowell), with any questions related to food safety.

*Names have been changed to protect the innocent*






By Jason Masters
     Environmental Health Director

Stock in the middle with you…


Q: Hey Jason, I love soup in the winter, but have always been afraid of the process. What is a safe way to make homemade soup for the cold winter months?


A: Soup is a wonderful treat on a cold winter day, or if you are like me, at any time throughout the year. Most soups are pretty basic, consisting of stock, meat and/or vegetables, and spices. Some soups introduce cream as a way to thicken and give the soup a silky mouthfeel. But to understand soup, we have to first start with the stock. Stock is just a product of water simmered with meat or bones (or both) for a set time period. Most times, vegetables are added, as well as salt and pepper and any other number of things you might have in the pantry. Simply put, water with meat and bones and those limp pieces of celery you’ve been saving, with a couple pinches of salt thrown in, and simmered for a few hours will produce a product that is far superior to any store bought stock or broth, and will add immense flavor (picture Guy Fieri: “Welcome to flavortown, baby!”) to any soup you make.

So what if you don’t have a half-day to sit around sipping hot tea and daydreaming of what you’re going to do after you retire, while leisurely skimming fat off your bubbling stock? Easy. Throw it all in a pressure cooker, let it sputtle and spurt for an hour, and BOOM, you’re done. Once you have your stock completed, soups, sauces, gravies, etc. are all within your grasp. (We will save sauces and gravies for another issue…)

From a food safety standpoint, cooling your delicious stock is the real issue. The North Carolina Food Code Manual (which is an adaptation of the 2009 FDA food code) dictates that potentially hazardous foods be cooled from 135 degrees F to 70 degrees F within two hours, and from 70 degrees F to 41 degrees F within the following 4 hours, to inhibit the growth of potentially harmful bacteria. The temperature range between 135 degrees F and 41 degrees F is what is commonly known as “The Danger Zone” (cue up your Kenny Loggins, kids…) and is the range that is just perfect for bacteria to thrive. This means exponential growth of bacteria is possible within this temperature range, however, if food is cooled within the parameters mentioned, then food can be safely stored. These are the exact specifications to which restaurants in all counties within the state are held. Some methods to help cool your stock (or any other food for that matter) include: ice baths, ice wands, adding ice to products, or placing products in a cooling unit (but make sure the food is not too hot, or it can warm up other foods in your refrigerator). You don’t need a fancy health inspector thermometer to keep track of your foods internal temperatures either, but spend the $10-15 bucks and grab one of these from Target ( or Wal-Mart (

If you think correctly cooling your stock is a pain, try telling a restaurant owner that he has to dump 10 gallons of his Italian Granny’s secret recipe Toscana down the drain…

You can reach the food and lodging division of the environmental health section at 828-287-6317 (Rutherford), 828-894-8004 (Polk), or 828-652-2921 (McDowell),  with any questions related to food safety.

Traditional Chicken Stock

-1/2 of chicken carcass

-2-3 ribs of celery broken in half or thirds

-2-3 carrots broken in half or thirds

-whole onion, quartered, with skin on (for color)

-2 garlic cloves, smashed

-generous salt

-generous pepper

-1-2 bay leaves

Take the bones and leftover meat and skin (the skin will add a deep color to the stock and can be omitted if desired) from a roasted chicken or a rotisserie chicken, and break apart. You will only need about a half a chicken carcass to make approx. 8 cups of stock. Freeze the remaining bones and meat for another time. Add bones and meat to a large stock pot, with celery, carrots, onion, garlic cloves, salt, pepper, bay leaf, and whatever other spices you might like. Add 10 cups of water. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and let simmer for 2-3 hours, tasting and occasionally skimming the fat from the top of the pot if necessary. Will yield about 8 cups of stock. When finished cooking, remove from heat, strain, use immediately for soups or stews, or cool and hold for seven days at 41 degrees or less.

Pressure Cooker Chicken Stock

Add all ingredients from above to pressure cooker, with 10 cups of water, place lid on cooker and seal, on high heat until pressure regulator begins to “speak”. Reduce heat to medium-low, (regulator should speak every few seconds) for about one hour. Remove from heat, strain, use immediately or cool. Will yield about 8 cups of stock.