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?
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.
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.