No regrets when barbecuing: Pay attention to hygiene and correct preparation of food

Summer has arrived heralding in the barbecue season in gardens and parks. It is a well-known fact that contaminants can also be formed during barbecuing which consumers then ingest with the grilled meat. The Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR) has put together tips on how to reduce the intake of these contaminants. A barbecue party normally also means salads and desserts in addition to meat. Particularly in summer some foods go off very quickly. “Potato salad with mayonnaise containing raw eggs and tiramisu prepared with raw eggs may contain pathogens that can multiply very quickly during the warm season”, says Professor Dr. Dr. Andreas Hensel, President of BfR. To avoid the party culminating in foodborne disease, consumers should always pay attention to  hygiene when preparing the food and ensure that it is correctly stored.  Some thought should be given not only to the food but also to the grill lighters.  There have been repeated incidences of severe poisoning caused by infants ingesting liquid grill lighters by mistake.

Harmful substances may form during the grilling of meat and fish over glowing charcoal. They remain on the meat or fish and are then ingested with them. They include, for instance, the polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs); many of which like for instance benzo(a)pyrene can trigger cancer. They are formed when fat from the meat or oil from the marinade drips into the glowing charcoal or onto the heating coil of electric grills. Grilling for longer periods at higher temperatures leads to the formation of harmful substances like heterocyclic aromatic amines (HAAs). Nitrosamines may be formed when salted meat and sausage products are grilled over glowing charcoal. These substances are also thought to cause cancer.

Contamination of the grilled foods with PAHs and other possibly harmful substances can be avoided when as little fat and oil as possible is allowed to drip onto the glowing charcoal. This is the case for instance when the charcoal grill is replaced by a gas grill or when care is taken to ensure that fat and oil cannot drip onto the heating coil of an electric grill. Anyone who doesn’t want to stop using a charcoal grill could switch to the less conventional grills on which the meat is positioned vertically. People who use a classical barbecue can prevent meat juices and fat from dripping into the glowing charcoal and contaminating the barbecued foods with unwanted substances by using aluminium trays. Salted meat and sausage products should preferably not be grilled at all. Meat and sausage products should not be exposed to heat for longer than necessary (danger of “charring”) in order to avoid the formation of heterocyclic aromatic amines.

The microbial contamination not only of meat but also of barbecue sauces, marinades, side dishes and desserts constitutes a further health risk. This may become a problem when the barbecue party extends over several hours. Any germs around like Salmonella can multiply at an explosive rate on meat and in dishes which have been prepared for instance with raw eggs on warm afternoons and evenings. To ensure that the barbecue party doesn’t turn into a serious threat to health, the following rules should be observed:

  • Only eat meat that has been cooked thoroughly

  • In the case of chicken drumsticks and turkey legs etc. ensure that the colour of the meat on the bone is somewhere between white and grey, too

  • Grill sauces, marinades and salad dressings should always be cooled and stored until shortly before serving or being added to the salad

  • Do not use “real” fresh mayonnaise (with raw eggs) or sensitive dishes like, for instance, desserts with raw eggs like wine froth (syllabub) or tiramisu

  • Prepare and store separately any raw meat and dishes which are eaten raw or are not reheated like salads, cold roasts, meatballs, etc. If meat is prepared before the salads, wash hands in between and clean any kitchen equipment like chopping boards, knives, etc. thoroughly.

If there are small children at the barbecue, then keep an eye on other potential sources of danger. Liquid grill lighters as well as lamp oil in garden torches and oil lamps are the cause time and time again of  severe poisoning incidents: small children sip the open storage containers or suck the wick of the unlit lamps and garden torches. Accidents of this kind can be avoided by

  • carefully closing the liquid lighter containers after each use and storing them out of the reach of small children,

  • using solid grill lighters like bars and cubes,

  • doing without the romantic lighting of oil torches and oil lamps when there are children around.

Frequently Asked Questions on grilling are available on BfR’s English website.

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