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Say I were to be cooking chicken in a pan, and I'm using tongs to flip the chicken periodically. By the time the chicken is done, how can it still be safe to use the tongs I started with to handle the chicken? Obviously it's come into contact with raw chicken, so why would I want to handle my food with it. Should I be switching utensils or washing them mid cook?

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Good question. I usually leave the tongs in the pan so they'll be "cooked" too until the exterior of the food has been cooked enough to be safe. –  Carey Gregory Nov 1 '13 at 0:48
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Better to be safe than gamble on possible or degree of contamination. Wash the tongs after using them on raw meat. –  Kristina Lopez Nov 2 '13 at 23:55
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2 Answers

There are several aspects to this:

  • first, consider the meat. Chicken from the supermarket, ground beef, or a piece of steak? Chicken is more likely to be contaminated - I treat anything that has touched raw chicken as contaminated and do not reuse it. A steak I am a little less worried about, partly because I like my steaks well seared on the outside so they are hotter on the outside towards the end of cooking than other meats.
  • second, do you have to use tongs to put it in the pan? I often use my hands and then wash them, and only start using the tongs once I'm dealing with hot (cooked on the outside) meat. Same for burgers: I don't put them in the pan with the flipper, it gets involved when they're ready to turn for the first time
  • third, consider that if some bacteria did get onto the tongs, after 10 or so minutes on the counter while the meat cooks, that bacteria would not have grown considerably, not all of it would then get on the meat when you reused the tongs, of those that did reach the meat, some would be killed in the remainder of the cook time or just from contact with the hot meat surface, and after 5 or 10 minutes of resting whatever remained would not have a significant growth. Compare to picking up yesterday's raw-chicken tongs from the counter where they've sat for 23 hours and using them to handle today's rare steak. That would be nasty.

My rule is to minimize reuse of utensils, but I don't have 10 pairs of tongs and someone to wash them for me, so for some meals it happens, and as long as it's not chicken, I don't worry about it.

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The simple answer is that they don't remain safe: this is a risk factor for cross contamination.

It is not appropriate to use, for example, the same tongs to put raw chicken on the grill as to flip that chicken later.

In practice, the risk may be low, because even if the utensil is contaminated, the main food is at temperature and renders it safe within seconds. Also, the volume of food on the utensils is small, and the length of time is short, so there is not a huge risk.

Still, it is best to remove fully cooked food which will not stay at safe temperatures with fresh, clean utensils.

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Can you quote something more scientific on "It is not appropriate to use, for example, the same tongs to put raw chicken on the grill as to flip that chicken later.", or explain your reasonings? It's progressive transferal, the tong get "contaminated" with cooked meat juices over time. That's how most of the worlds population cooks meat, have you ever been to a BBQ? –  TFD Nov 1 '13 at 6:54
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+1 Temperature is much much more effective at killing bacteria and parasites than soap which does not actually kill anything, but merely helps to wash most of the contaminants down the drain; you cannot sterilize with soap. So, leave them in the pan like @CareyGregory suggested. –  Mischa Arefiev Nov 1 '13 at 9:47
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In professional kitchens you aren't supposed to handle the same piece of meat once it has been cooked with the same tongs. Though in practice this very rarely happens. Some kitchens even have colour coded boards and utensils so that people know which ones to use. Red = uncooked meat, yellow = cooked meat and blue = fish. Again though if the boards of the right colour were not available for use most chefs will just use the nearest one rather than wash the right one. –  John E Nov 1 '13 at 10:25
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While I don't find any specific references to utensils (other than to cutting boards) in most of the industry documentation, this is a well understood risk and I guarantee any health inspector would flag a restaurant for doing it, at least in the US. See for example: health.qld.gov.au/foodsafety/documents/fs-12-cross-con.pdf tle.tafevc.com.au/toolbox/file/… deom two different countries. Downvote all you want, this is still true. –  SAJ14SAJ Nov 1 '13 at 12:54
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@SAJ14SAJ It's a myth, just like double dipping. A simple test will show how none or extremely small amounts of contamination survive on tongs with repeated use on a hot grill. The issue with contamination is not just contamination, but contamination + temp + time. A splash of contaminated chicken juices into a salad that sits around for a few hours before being used is very dangerous. Raw chicken juice left on a pair of tongs on a hot grill on a piece of properly cooked chicken about to be served in a few minutes is not going to allow the bacteria to multiply to dangerous levels –  TFD Nov 2 '13 at 9:57
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