Smarter Living: Eating Well
Guide to Green, Healthy Grilling
Photo: Another Pint Please/Flickr
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 tips.
Meat and Poultry Labels
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
Animals get fresh air, water and exercise and are not overcrowded. Animal Welfare Institute works with independent family farms (certifiedhumane.org).
Demeter Certified Biodynamic
Prohibits synthetic pesticides, fertilizers, requires pastured livestock and promotes holistic farming and the preservation of high-value conservation areas (demeter-usa.org).
Requires little or no pesticide use, worker welfare, habitat protection, well-managed agriculture and humane care of livestock (foodalliance.org)
Animals are fed organic vegetarian feed, are not administered any antibiotics or hormones. Antibiotic overuse in conventional livestock increases the risk of creating drug-resistant bacteria. Vegetarian feed eliminates the risk of “mad cow” disease (ams.usda.gov/nop).
USDA Process Verified Grass-fed
Animals eat grass and forage only, but are allowed to receive antibiotics and growth hormones (ams.usda.gov).
For more labels, see Smarter Living's Label Lookup .
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.
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.
Best Aquaculture Practices
Indicates that certified shrimp farms and hatcheries and seafood processing plants protect biodiversity, food safety, and worker rights.
Country of Origin Labeling
Indicates the country in which the product was grown or raised.
Ensures that certified tuna fisheries utilize specific methods that protect the marine ecosystem and do not harm dolphins.
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.
Indicates fish were not farm-raised. Not MSC (Marine Stewardship Council) Certified unless product bears the blue shield.
Foodborne Illness in Meat and Poultry
BSE: Bovine spongiform encephalopathy (“mad cow” disease), is transmitted by cattle feed containing contaminated animal parts. Organic beef (from cattle raised on vegetarian organic feed) is your safest bet. Avoid hamburgers, hot dogs and sausages, which may contain meat from many cows.
Campylobacter: Found in most chickens, this bacterium produces diarrhea, cramping, abdominal pain and fever.
Dioxin: Dioxin is a carcinogenic compound that accumulates in animal fat. Choose lean cuts of meat to avoid it. Happily, grilling helps reduce fat in meat.
E. coli 0157:H7: A bacterium, often found in undercooked ground beef, causes bloody diarrhea and abdominal cramps. To stay safe, buy whole cuts of meat, ask your grocer to grind them for you, and cook well.
Listeria: 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 Americans annually. High-risk foods include hot dogs, deli meats, and unpasteurized milk or cheese.
Salmonella: 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 Americans a year. Keep eggs refrigerated, avoid imported raw seafood (10 percent contain salmonella) and cook thoroughly.
last revised 5/4/2011