8 Surprising Ways Your BBQ Could Make You Sick (And How to Prevent It)

Nothing says “summer” like the smell of barbecues wafting from back yards on a Saturday afternoon. A burger, steak, brisket or chicken drumstick tastes all the finer when it’s properly grilled over coals. But data from the CDC shows that 48 million Americans get sick from food-borne diseases every year, and that cases peak around 4th July when barbecue season is at its peak.

From the way you light the fire to how you clean and troubleshoot the grill, there are more ways than you might think that a barbecue can throw a dampener on your summer celebration, leaving you stranded in the bathroom or worse, at the Emergency Room. Here, we check out eight ways your BBQ could make you sick - and most important, how to prevent it.

1. Accelerants are a short cut to the emergency room


Think of barbecue-related hospital visits and your mind probably jumps to victims of under-cooked chicken holding their stomachs in pain. But almost 50 percent of barbecue-induced visits to the ER are from burns, and the majority of burns are caused by the use of accelerants.

We get it, you’re eager to get those steaks and burgers sizzling, and sometimes the barbecue seems determined not to cooperate and just won’t get going. A squirt of accelerant, such as gasoline, white spirit or that liquid lighter fuel that is so aggressively marketed alongside the coals and BBQ equipment can seem like a tempting solution.

The problems are twofold. First, as already mentioned, a moment of carelessness can really ruin your day, week or year if you lose control and it blows back in your face. But even if you avoid accidents, accelerants do no favors to your culinary output. Effectively, you are cooking over lighter fluid instead of coal, and that pungent petrochemical tang will taint whatever it comes into contact with, including those aromatic pork and apple sausages.

Be patient, allow extra time to get the barbecue going, and light it using an old fashioned technique such as a charcoal chimney or even wadded up newspaper to get it going.

2. Failing to preheat the grill leads to trouble


The other problem with accelerants is that even when they work properly, they lead to a fire that is burning incredibly hot incredibly quickly. That might not sound like a bad thing, but the metal grill needs time to soak up the heat. Plenty of people throw the meat on too soon (often wondering how much pulled pork per person), deceived by the heat of the fire. if the grill itself is not hot too, it won’t cook anything.

As well as not being properly cooked, your meat will tend to bond to the metal, resulting in an unappetizing falling-apart mess that is burnt in some places and raw in others. Using low heat can also cause your pork butt to stall, resulting in pulled pork not shredding. It will also make the grill all the harder to clean later on - more about that in a few minutes.

At least this one is easy to avoid. When your fire is naturally alight and burning well, cover the grill and give it 10 minutes or so for the heat to properly transfer to the grill. Then, when you place the meat on the grill, the surface will immediately start to cook and is much less likely to get stuck.

3. No marinade means less protection


A tasty marinade does more than add flavor to your meat. It can also protect you from dangerous carcinogens. The American Institute for Cancer Research recommends that before being placed on the grill, all meat, including beef and chicken, should be marinated in the fridge for at least 30 minutes, and ideally, overnight.

The marinade creates a protective barrier on the surface of the meat and this helps prevent the flames from the barbecue from causing heterocyclic amines (HCAs) to form. Julie Lanford, from Cancer Services in Winston-Salem, NC recommends a marinade of lemon juice, vinegar or wine plus the herbs and spices of your choice.

The Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry adds that when barbecuing pork, you could simply marinate it overnight in beer. A dark lager or pilsner is ideal. This helps reduce the formation of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, which are basically similar to HCAs.

4. Too much heat is the classic rookie error


The archetypal barbecue disaster involves meat that is burnt to a crisp on the outside and still raw in the middle. Anyone brave enough to taste it is likely to regret the decision a few hours later when the body revolts, and food poisoning is a real risk.

Most of us know the root cause is too much heat (which can affect brisket stall). But knowing a thing and doing something about it are two very different concepts. Managing the heat on your barbecue is not difficult, and those who get it wrong usually do so because they are hurrying. Remember, pork but internal temperature is important to keep an eye on, and too much fuel can cook it too quickly!

We have already discussed the importance of lighting the fire properly and giving the grill time to preheat. There is then one more piece of preparation, and that is to rearrange the coals a little so you have a main cooking area above the gray coals that are glowing red a little and then an area with just a thin layer of coals, where food like chicken can cook through more slowly

5. Not enough burger-flipping increases the risk of HCAs


Remember we discussed HCAs earlier, and specifically how these carcinogens can form on beef or chicken when they come into contact with a flame. Experts at the UC Davis Comprehensive Cancer Center in Sacramento point out that regularly turning food during cooking reduces the likelihood of this. In particular, they recommend flipping hamburgers about once per minute until they are cooked.

Constantly turning them in this way increases the internal temperature of the meat while reducing HCA on the surface. It is also a good idea to move them about on the grill, as when fat drips in one place, it is more likely to cause a flare-up.

This method should also be applied to other meats you are cooking. However, don’t overdo it and mess with them more than they need or they won’t get a chance to cook properly - which brings us on to our next point.

6. You think you’re Gordon Ramsay with a calibrated finger


We’ve all seen experienced chefs on TV poke a steak and proclaim it medium-rare. The point is, however, we’ve also seen gymnasts perform double back-flips and rocket scientists calculate escape velocities. Unless we are experts in these fields, we probably wouldn’t try them at home, especially in full view of a garden full of guests on a Saturday afternoon.

Judging whether something is cooked by feel is no less specialist an art. Beside that, here’s a little secret to take to the bank: Even Gordon Ramsay uses a meat thermometer when it’s really important to know something is cooked all the way through.

Emily Forauer from US non-profit Stop Foodborne Illness points out that prodding meat or even digging about inside something to check whether the pink seems to have disappeared are less than ideal ways to assess whether a piece of meat is properly cooked. She remarks: “About one in four hamburgers turn brown before they’re ready to eat,” and reminds us that undercooked food brings an increased likelihood of bacteria like salmonella or E. coli that can lead to foodborne illnesses.

A meat thermometer removes any and all doubt. You can buy one for a few dollars, and it’s one of the best investments you will ever make.

7. Basting with marinade just spreads bacteria


Remember that lovely marinade that your meat was soaking in all night? It seems a shame to just wash it down the drain. Many enterprising grillers keep it alongside the barbecue and use it to baste the meat while it cooks; much different than a Brisket Spritz!

It smells great and even tastes great, but the trouble is, that marinade is full of juices from the raw meat. Slathering them over food when it is almost cooked is a recipe for food poisoning and will make your barbecue memorable for all the wrong reasons.

In principle, there is nothing wrong with using a marinade to baste meat while it cooks. However, it needs to be uncontaminated, so set some aside specifically for the purpose when you make it and ensure it does not come into contact with raw meat.

8. Cleaning the grill with a wire brush presents hidden dangers


When the cooking is done and that last sausage has been claimed, you can take a seat and relax. But you know that sooner or later, you’ll need to clean up that grill ready for next time. If you preheated it properly, it shouldn’t be too serious a task, but eleven if you did everything perfectly, there will probably be some food residue stuck to the metal.

Some people simply leave the task for next time and use a combination of a wire brush and heat to clean off the grill while it is pre-heating. In theory, there is nothing wrong with this, however you need to be very watchful. A study carried out in 2016 for Sage made the surprising discovery that using this method to clean the barbecue was the direct cause of more than 1,600 Emergency Room visits between 2002 and 2014.

The problem that can arise is from loose bristles that can fall off the brush during cleaning and then adhere to the food you are later grilling. This has led to all sorts of painful injuries to the mouth and throat.

The Food Standards Agency in the UK has offered some advice on this point. Their recommendation is not to leave the barbecue growing all sorts of bacteria till you next use it but to take a deep breath and wash it that night. Make a start on it while it is still warm but has cooled down enough that you can hold the grill in your hand. You can then use a wire brush to remove the worst and then stick to warm soapy water as you would with any other washing up. Always make sure the grill is thoroughly rinsed and completely dry when you put it away, so it will be ready for next time.