Guide to Green, Healthy Grilling
About 76 to 80 million cases of foodborne illness occur in the United States annually, most as a result of eating contaminated meat. But there’s no need to char your burgers into briquettes out of fear of bacteria. Learn where your meat comes from so you can avoid animals raised on disease-promoting factory farms and feedlots or contaminated with mercury or PCBs from polluted waterways. Whether you prefer fish, flesh or fowl for your fire pit, you can avoid hazards if you follow these simple shopping and food handling steps.
What You Can Do
Food Handling and Preparation
Follow these USDA-recommended practices to reduce risks from pathogens:
- Wash hands and surfaces often.
- Separate raw meat, poultry and fish from other foods and each other, cleaning hands, knives and cutting boards between items.
- Always cook to proper internal temperatures, and check with a meat thermometer: ground beef and all cuts of pork, 160°F; beef and lamb roasts, steaks and chops, 145°F; poultry thighs and breasts, 170°F; whole birds, 180°F. Remember: Checking the color of meat does not protect you—even if there is no trace of pink in the middle, pathogens may be present.
- Cook seafood as follows: Finned fish should be opaque and should flake easily; crabmeat should be red and pearly opaque; clams and mussels should be cooked until shells open (discard any that remain closed).
- Refrigerate before cooking and within two hours after (one hour if you are outdoors and the temperature is above 90°F).
Natural gas and propane are the cleanest and most energy-efficient fuels. To avoid propane fuel leaks, which can cause fires, most states require overfill safety devices on tanks. Check to make sure yours has one.
Unlike using charcoal or wood, electric grilling can safely be done indoors because no dangerous gases are released. Stoves, however, should be adequately vented.
While some barbecue connoisseurs adore the smoky flavor that wood imparts, burning it releases the greatest amount of ash and smoke, both respiratory hazards. Hardwoods, like hickory and mesquite (a.k.a. kiawe), are preferred but grow slowly. Never use lumber or wood scraps, which may have been treated with hazardous chemicals.
Charcoal is made from wood, but its production releases more greenhouse gases than burning wood and causes greater deforestation. Avoid the VOCs from petroleum-based lighter fluid and self-lighting briquettes by lighting coals with a newspaper-burning chimney starter.
Foodborne Illness in Meat and Poultry
Bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), or “mad cow” disease, is transmitted by cattle feed containing contaminated animal parts. This makes grass-fed and organic beef (from cattle raised on vegetarian organic feed) your safest bets. Avoid hamburgers, hot dogs and sausages, which may contain meat from many cows and include diseased nerve and brain tissue.
Found in most chickens, this bacterium produces diarrhea, cramping, abdominal pain and fever.
Dioxin is a carcinogenic compound that accumulates in animal fat, and it can be avoided by choosing lean cuts of meat. Happily, grilling helps reduce fat in meat.
E. coli 0157:H7
This bacterium, often found in undercooked ground beef, causes bloody diarrhea and abdominal cramps. The U.S. government allows higher levels of contamination in ground beef, which can be composed of meat from as many as 100 cows. To stay safe, buy whole cuts of meat, ask your grocer to grind them for you, and cook well.
A bacterium primarily affecting pregnant women, newborns, and adults with weakened immune systems, listeria causes fever, muscle aches and sometimes nausea or diarrhea. It kills about 500 people annually. High-risk foods include hot dogs, deli meats, and unpasteurized milk or cheese.
This is most often encountered in eggs and poultry, but it is also found in raw meat, fish and shrimp. Infections cause fever, abdominal cramps and diarrhea and kill an estimated 600 people a year. Keep eggs refrigerated, avoid imported raw seafood (10 percent contain salmonella) and cook thoroughly.
Meat and Poultry Labels
When shopping, look for meat and poultry certified by these groups:
American Grassfed Association
Requires that animals eat grass only; if they receive antibiotics due to illness, they must be removed from the program. The association also prohibits growth hormones. Grass-fed beef is lower in overall fat, yet it has more omega-3 fatty acids than conventional beef, making it a healthier choice (americangrassfed.org).
Animal Welfare Approved
Sets high standards for health, shelter and handling of livestock, including a requirement that animals spend most of their life in pasture. The group also prohibits growth hormones, and antibiotics may be given only to sick animals. (animalwelfareapproved.org).
Certified Humane Raised and Handled
Sets high standards for health, shelter and handling; prohibits growth hormones; allows antibiotics to be given only to sick animals (certifiedhumane.org).
Demeter Certified Biodynamic
Prohibits synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, requires pastured livestock, and promotes holistic farming and the preservation of high-value conservation areas (demeter-usa.org).
Requires low- or no-pesticide practices, worker welfare, habitat protection, well managed agriculture and humane care of livestock (foodalliance.org).
Mandates that animals be fed organic vegetarian feed and not be given any antibiotics or hormones. Antibiotic overuse in conventional livestock increases the risk of creating drug-resistant bacteria (ams.usda.gov/nop).
USDA Process Verified Grass-Fed
Requires that animals eat grass and forage only, but allows them to receive antibiotics and growth hormones.
Contaminants in Fish
A neurotoxic heavy metal that can harm brain development, mercury is found in high levels in Atlantic halibut, king mackerel, pike, sea bass, shark, swordfish, tilefish (golden snapper) and tuna (steaks and canned albacore). At greatest risk are young children, pregnant women, nursing mothers and women of childbearing age. For safer seafood choices, see NRDC’s guide to mercury contamination in fish.
Polychlorinated biphenyls, found at unsafe levels in some freshwater fish, can cause developmental damage in fetuses and newborns and learning disabilities later in life. Check EPA advisories at map1.epa.gov before eating lake or river fish.
Indicates fish were caught from healthy fisheries and contain low contaminant levels (fishwise.org).
Marine Stewardship Council
Certifies well-managed fisheries with healthy populations that are captured without damaging ocean ecosystems (msc.org). This label does not evaluate mercury or PCB contamination.
Though the United States lacks organic standards for fish, imported organic farmed salmon and trout certified by the UK Soil Association are available in U.S. groceries. Lower fish oil in feed reduces PCB and dioxin contamination.
- Bisphenol A (BPA)
- Hexavalent Chromium
- Methylene chloride (dichloromethane)
- Perchloroethylene (Tetrachloroethylene, PERC, PCE)
- Propoxur (Flea and Tick Pesticide)
- Sulfur Dioxide
- TDCP/TCEP (Chlorinated Flame Retardants)
- Tetrachlorvinphos (Flea and Tick Pesticide)
- Trichloroethylene (TCE)
- Triclosan and Triclocarban (Antibacterials)