If you're using the same spatula or set of tongs all the way through cooking meat, you could be spreading unwanted germs. Here's what to do instead.

Jill Waldbieser; Reviewed by Jessica Ball, M.S., RD
February 11, 2021
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Getty / RapidEye
| Credit: Getty / RapidEye

When Gary Acuff cooks, he uses two pairs of tongs. Acuff isn't a chef with TikTok's greatest new cooking hack—he's a professor emeritus of food microbiology at Texas A&M University who now runs his own business, Acuff Consulting LLC. He has spent a long and distinguished career studying the bacteria that wreaks havoc on our GI tracts, and he has pretty much ruined anything but well-done hamburgers for me.

Now he's telling me why I should use two pairs of tongs to cook. I'm no microbiologist, but I've worked in professional kitchens and thought I had a pretty good grasp of food safety practices: Use separate cutting boards for meat and veg, disinfect surfaces to avoid cross contamination, thaw meat properly. But I overlooked one thing: I've been using the same spatula or set of tongs all the way through cooking meat.

"Anytime you have a utensil that comes in contact with raw meat, it could become contaminated and then re-contaminate what you just cooked," Acuff says. "Cross-contamination," he says, "is the easiest way to get yourself or your guests sick."

But back to this tong situation. Won't the heat from cooking essentially sterilize any utensils I'm using? Possibly, Acuff says, but tongs and other utensils generally only come into contact with the pan for a few seconds at most, not enough time to destroy any foodborne pathogens. "It may take just a few cells to make you sick," he says.

The risk isn't that the food you're cooking will be re-contaminated—as long as you're still cooking it, the heat from the pan will destroy any bacteria. But if you set a utensil that has come in contact with raw meat on the counter, a spoon rest or a plate, you're in cross-contamination territory.

Acuff's solution—which, as designated dishwasher and gadget minimalist, I hate—is to use one set of tongs for handling meat that's still raw, and switching to a second set once it's been mostly cooked. (You can buy a two-pack of tongs for $10 and a two-pack of spatulas for $15 on Amazon)

As someone who has never used two different tools to cook meat, and never gotten a foodborne illness, I had to ask just how much of a risk I was taking if I didn't follow his advice.

A small one, was his reply. Of all the ways to contract a foodborne illness, this is probably lower on the list. And there's no need to go crazy—while things like spatulas and tongs have a lot more surface area for bacteria to cling to, he feels comfortable using a single meat thermometer without washing it between uses.

A bigger issue, and one he says has been "flying under the radar for a while," is mishandling frozen meat. "If you're using a frozen steak or frozen meat patties, it's not as messy. You're not getting blood or juice all over your hands, but you could still be transferring bacteria," Acuff says. "You should handle it the same as any raw, fresh meat."

And always read the package. Nearly a quarter of people misjudged whether a raw frozen chicken entree was cooked or partially cooked, according to a USDA study from last year. "Sometimes these products are breaded or have grill marks that give them a cooked appearance," Acuff says. People microwave them thinking they're no longer raw, and get a surprise when they start to eat them. Unfortunately, for foodborne illnesses, he says, sometimes "All it takes is one good bite."

So next time you're making chili or flipping a burger, take the proper precautions. And consider getting everyone you know an extra pair of tongs.