About 76 to 80 million cases of foodborne illnesses occur in the US annually, most as a result of eating contaminated meat. But this summer, there’s no need to char your burgers into briquettes for fear of bacteria. Learn where animals came from and what they were fed, avoiding those that have been packed in disease-promoting factory farms and feedlots or contaminated with mercury or PCBs from polluted waterways. Whether you prefer fish, flesh or fowl for your firepit, you can avoid hazards if you follow these simple shopping and food handling steps.
What You Can Do
Food Handling and Preparation
Following these USDA-recommended practices will 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 temperatures and check with a thermometer (ground beef and all cuts of pork, 160°F; beef and lamb roasts, steaks and chops, 145°F; poultry thigh and breasts, 170°F; whole birds, 180°F). Remember: Checking for pink meat in the middle does not protect you—even if meat is all brown, it can have pathogens.
- Seafood should be cooked as follows: finned fish until it is opaque and flakes easily; crab meat should be red and pearly opaque; and clams and mussels should be cooked until shells open. Discard shellfish that remain closed.
- Refrigerate before and within two hours after cooking (one hour if temperatures are 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 that using charcoal or wood, electric grilling can safely be done indoors without releasing dangerous gases. Stoves, however, should be adequately vented.
While some barbecue connoisseurs adore wood’s smoky flavor, it also releases the greatest amount of ash and smoke, both respiratory hazards. Hardwoods, like hickory, mesquite (aka kiawe), are preferred but grow slowly. Never use lumber or wood scraps–they may have been treated with hazardous chemicals.
Foodborne Illness in Meat and Poultry
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.
Bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), or “mad cow,” transmitted by cattle feed contaminating animal parts, has made grassfed and organic beef (from cattle raised on vegetarian organic feed) your safest bet. Avoid hamburgers, hot dogs and sausages, which may contain meat from many cows, including diseased nerve and brain tissue.
Found in most chickens, this bacteria also produces diarrhea, cramping, abdominal pain and fever.
Carcinogenic compounds that accumulate in animal fat, dioxins can be avoided by choosing lean cuts of meat. Happily, grilling helps reduce fat in meat.
E. coli 0157:H7
This bacteria, often found in undercooked, ground beef, causes bloody diarrhea and abdominal cramps. The US allows higher levels of contamination in ground beef, which can be composed of meat from as many as a hundred different cows. Ask you grocer to grind meat for you. Cook well.
A bacteria primarily affecting pregnant women, newborns, and adults with weakened immune systems, listeria causes fever, muscle aches and sometimes nausea or diarrhea, killing 500 people annually. High-risk foods include hotdogs, deli meats, unpasteurized milk or cheese.
Meat and Poultry Labels
Most often encountered in eggs and poultry, salmonella is also found in raw meat, fish and shrimp. Infections cause fever, abdominal cramps and diarrhea, killing an estimated 600 people a year. Keep eggs refrigerated, avoid imported raw seafoods (10% contain salmonella) and cook thoroughly.
When shopping, here are some healthy choices for you family and the environment.
American Grassfed Association
Requires that animals eat grass only and if they receive antibiotics due to illness they must be removed from the program; prohibits growth hormones. Grass-fed beef is lower in overall fats, yet has more omega-3 fatty acids than conventional beef, making it a healthier choice (americangrassfed.com).
Animal Welfare Approved
Sets high standards for health, shelter and handling, including spending most of life in pasture; prohibits growth hormones and antibiotics may only be given 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 use, worker welfare, habitat protection, well managed agriculture and humane care of livestock (foodalliance.org).
Animals are fed organic vegetarian feed and are not administered 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
Contaminants in Fish
Animals eat grass and forage only, but are allowed to receive antibiotics and growth hormones (ams.usda.gov).
A neurotoxic heavy metal which 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 most 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 in unsafe levels in some fresh water fish, can cause developmental damage in fetuses and newborns, and learning disabilities later. 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 consider mercury or PCB contamination.
Though the US 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.