How To Grill Safely


Outdoor cooking was once mainly a summer activity, but now more than 50% of Americans say they do it year round.   Still, the number of grillers dramatically increases in the summer.  So does the amount of food-borne illness.  There is probably some connection between cooking and eating outside and contamination of food.  Perhaps the risk is greater for those cooking and eating away from home (picnicking or camping out) because they may not have access to refrigeration and clean, hot water for washing utensils and hands well.  However, even those grilling and dining in their backyards can benefit from tips on how to produce a safe and healthy meal.  In the U.S., outdoor grills are the cause of 19,000 emergency-room visits and 7,900 home fires every year.  


Grilling is easy, especially for women because, for some reason, the man of the house seems to enjoy doing the barbecuing. Moreover, without heating up the kitchen and messing up the oven, the host and hostess can provide guests with a tasty entrée.   But is grilling a safe way to cook?  Considering the possible presence of carcinogens, flames, bugs, and bacteria, the following advice is worth noting.  


Risks of Undercooking or Overcooking Meat


Sure, you want to accommodate your guests’ tastebuds.  Some like their steaks rare; some like their hot dogs blackened.  However, rare meat may contain harmful bacteria; blackened food can be carcinogenic. Therefore, if you like your guests (in fact, even if you don’t), be protective. Cook meat and poultry sufficiently to kill pathogens, and discourage the consumption of blackened meat, poultry, or fish. 


You can’t judge if a food is sufficiently cooked by its color. Before you take it off the grill, use your trustworthy food thermometer.  Here are the minimum safe temperatures:


Poultry (whole, breasts, or ground): 165ºF (For better texture, cook whole birds to 180ºF.)


Hamburgers (beef): 160ºF.


Beef, veal, lamb (steaks, roasts, and chops):  Medium rare: 145ºF., Medium, 160ºF


Pork, all cuts: 160ºF.


Fish: 145ºF

Hot dogs and other pre-cooked foods: 165ºF



How persuasive is the evidence that overcooked and well-done and charred meat can cause cancer?  Unfortunately for those that love the taste of ashes, the evidence is strong enough to scare any reasonable person.  Results of a 12-year study (announced in early 2010) showed that people who regularly consume well-done meat are more than twice more likely to develop bladder cancer than those who eat it less well-done.  According to the study, the risk is greatest with grilled, fried, or broiled red meats such as steaks, pork chops, and bacon. People who are genetically susceptible to developing bladder cancer from charred meat are about 5 times as likely to develop this form of cancer, according to the University of Texas scientists who conducted the study. Earlier studies had revealed links between charred meats and pancreatic and bowel cancers.


The good news is that there are ways to reduce the risks of consuming cancer-causing compounds along with your grilled steak.  Here are some widely recommended methods:


1) To minimize fat drippings, trim excess fat from steaks and use lean hamburger.


2) Avoid marinades that contain fats such as margarine, butter, or vegetable oil.  Marinating with rosemary and (to a lesser extent) lemon and garlic, hinders the formation of carcinogenic toxins.


3) Before putting the meat on the grill, microwave (partially cook)  it for a few minutes and pour off the juices. Immediately, finish cooking it on the grill.


4) Cook with hot coals, not flames. (Less fat on or in the meat means less chance of a flare-up of flames)  Don’t put the meat directly above the coals.  Cook food in the center of the grill, and move the coals to the side to prevent fat and juices from dripping on them.


5) Grill meat in aluminum foil or a pan until the last few minutes of cooking.


6) Cut off any charred portions before serving.


7) Clean the grill after each use.


Is grilled food a health risk?  Here’s the opinion of two food safety specialists from Virginia State University (Virginia Tech):  “Some studies suggest that a diet consisting of charred grilled food may increase cancer risk.  However, no evidence exists that eating moderate amounts of grilled, non-charred meats poses a health problem.” 


In fact, according to the Mayo Clinic’s healthy cooking tips, grilling is, in some ways, a healthy cooking method. “Both grilling and broiling expose fairly thin pieces of food to direct heat and allow fat to drip away from the food.”   Just grill following the 7 suggestions above, and enjoy your occasional steak without anxiety.


Playing with Fire

Grilling precautions begin with a careful reading of the directions on how to use your grill.  Here are some additional tips to assure you a safe afternoon at the grill.


• Never grill in an enclosed area such as a tent or garage.  In fact, to avoid causing a fire started by sparks or out-of-control flames, set up the grill away from trees, bushes, dry leaves, porches, and garages. This is especially important on a windy day.  (Are there very high winds?  It would be wiser to not use the grill at all.)


• Keep something on hand to control flames within the grill—such as a spray bottle or squirt gun.  (Hot coals, not flames, should be used to cook protein.) Remove or push aside food  before spraying.  Use only a small amount of water so that you don’t reduce the heat of the coals.


• Have a bucket of sand, a hooked-up water hose, or, better yet, a fire extinguisher handy just in case flames get out of control. 


• Protect yourself from injury by using flame retardant mitts and long-handled utensils.  Also don’t wear any clothing that could end up getting barbecued (long sleeves, a tie, etc.)


• Protect your children and your young guests.  Do not allow children to cook on the grill, and don’t allow them to run around near the grill.


• After each use, clean the grill so there’s no greasy, germ-laden build-up. First, scrape off thick food residue.  Then wash the grill with hot water and detergent and rinse well.

• For excellent specific tips on charcoal/wood chunk grilling, gas grilling, and electric grilling, click here:


Preparing Tasty, Healthy Grilled Food

• Steaks, chops, and ground beef can be cooked fast, but large cuts of meats should be cooked more slowly.


• If you’re cooking at an appropriate temperature, it should take about the same amount of time as if you were using your oven.


• Use a tongs or spatula to turn and remove food from the grill. The prongs of a fork will pierce the meat.  Result:  tasty juices are lost.  Instead of being inside the meat, the juices are dripping out, adding “fuel” to the fire and perhaps causing flames and overcooking.


• Meat can be marinated for greater tenderness and taste, and, during the grilling the marinade can be used for basting.  (It’s best not to baste with a marinade containing fat or oil.)  Note: If you want to bring the marinade to the table for a sauce, you must boil it first to kill contaminants. 


• Is it done yet?  If clear juices run from meat or poultry, that’s a pretty good indication that it is.  If you’re grilling fish, it’s probably done when it flakes. However, to be safe, use a food thermometer and follow these guidelines for the minimum safe temperature:


Poultry (whole, breasts, or ground): 165ºF.  (For better texture, cook whole birds to 180ºF.)


Hamburgers (beef): 160ºF.


Beef, veal, lamb (steaks, roasts, and chops):  Medium rare: 145ºF., Medium, 160ºF.


Pork, all cuts: 160ºF.


Fish: 145ºF.


Hot dogs and other pre-cooked foods: 165ºF


What about the cancer risk from barbecued food?   The USDA says that a MODERATE amount of grilled food that is not overcooked or charred is not a problem.  Don’t grill for every meal. 


Avoiding Food-borne Illness

When cooking outdoors, especially for a crowd, it’s easy to get distracted and forget to be careful about avoiding contamination.  Here are just a few reminders, from preparation to clean-up.


• Wash your hands with hot, soapy water BEFORE AND AFTER handling raw food.


• Defrost foods in the refrigerator or (if a sealed package) in cold water.  You can also use the microwave to defrost but only if the food is going to go right from the microwave to the grill.  (Since the microwave heats items unevenly, some parts of the item may be cold and other parts warm.)  Never defrost perishable food on the counter or outdoors. 


• Marinate food safely by doing it in the fridge, not on the counter.  Poultry and cubed meat can be marinated for a maximum of 2 days.  Roasts (beef, veal, pork, and lamb) can be marinated for up to 5 days.


• Do not partially cook food one day and finish the cooking the next day.


• It’s so easy to make this mistake, but don’t.  Do not carry raw food to the grill on a platter and then put the cooked food on the same platter. Get that platter away from the grill and back into the kitchen sink or dishwasher so that you won’t absent-mindedly put cooked food on it.


• What if the food on the grill gets done before you’re quite ready to serve the meal?  Keep it hot  (above 140ºF   but not continuing to cook) by pushing it to the side of the grill away from hot coals, or put it in a low oven.


• Remember that 2-hour rule? Cut it to 1 hour when you’re outdoors on a hot day.  If the temperature is above 90ºF, perishable food should be out of the fridge no longer than 1 hour.  Bacteria multiply rapidly in the “danger zone” (from 40ºF - 140ºF).  It’s important to keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold to prevent bacteria from multiplying to the point where they cause illness.


• Avoid cross-contamination by using a different cutting board for raw meat, poultry, and fish than you do for fruit and vegetables that will be served raw.




Chicago Tribune  Good Eating section "Grill smart; be safe too" June 30, 2010, p.7.


Virginia Cooperative Extension “Outdoor Food Preparation and Safety”


USDA Food Safety and Extension Service  “Barbecue and Food Safety” 


Huffington Post “Healthy Cooking Tips from Mayo Clinic”


Science Daily “Charred Meat May Increase Risk of Pancreatic Cancer”


BBCNews “Well-done meat doubles bladder cancer risk”


Hughes County Oklahoma Cooperative Extension Service(Oklahoma State University)
“Outdoor grilling requires same food safety practices as indoor cooking” “Father’s Day Grilling”


Oklahoma State University, Hughes County Oklahoma Cooperative Extension Service
“Outdoor grilling requires the same food safety practices as indoor cooking”

Time, July 5, 2010, p.58.






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