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7 Tips to Avoid Getting Sick From Your Backyard Grill

Don't let a preventable mistake spoil your next cookout

Chicken and hamburgers cooked on outdoor gas grill
Brett Taylor

Grilling is becoming increasingly popular. You can find a grill or smoker in 70 percent of American households, the highest percentage recorded since the Hearth, Patio & Barbecue Association (HPBA) began tracking consumer trends, according to its 2022 report. In fact, 38 percent of grill owners purchased a new grill over the past two years.

However, as popular as grilling may be, the grill likely isn't the most commonly used cooking appliance you own. So it's understandable that cooking mistakes can be made, even by the most proficient home chefs, that can put health at risk — especially the health of older adults.

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"Food safety is important for everyone, but it's extremely important for people who may be more vulnerable to severe food poisoning,” says Brian Katzowitz, health communications specialist for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). “Adults older than 65, because of weakened immune systems, may be more likely to get sick with a foodborne illness."

To help weekend grill masters avoid exposing themselves and their dining companions to foodborne illnesses and other health risks, we asked two experts — the CDC’s Brian Katzowitz and Robyn Goldberg, a registered dietitian, nutritionist and author of The Eating Disorder Trap — for advice. Here are seven tips for safer and healthier backyard cookouts.

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1. Choose propane over charcoal

4 Most Popular Holidays to Grill

  1. Fourth of July (54%)
  2. Labor Day (47%)
  3. Memorial Day (44%)
  4. Father’s Day (34%)

Source: Hearth, Patio & Barbecue Association

Propane gas grills are a healthier option, according to Goldberg, because they create less smoke than charcoal grills. While charcoal itself isn’t carcinogenic, smoke is. Gas grills also carry a smaller carbon footprint, Goldberg adds, making them better for the environment than charcoal. However, charcoal has grown in popularity. Sixty-five percent of grill owners have a charcoal grill, up from 49 percent in 2019. Gas maintained its position in 63 percent of homes since the last report in 2019. (Note: The data accounts for those who own both propane and charcoal grills, according to the HPBA.)

2. Keep your grill clean

Since a grill is kept outside, you may feel you don't need to keep it clean like you would the stove in your kitchen. But foodborne germs can spread just as easily outdoors as indoors. Although the CDC doesn't have explicit guidelines for cleaning grills, Katzowitz suggests washing grates and prep surfaces with hot, soapy water before cooking. Don't forget to clean tongs, spatulas and other grilling utensils while you're at it.

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3. Inspect your grill brush

A grill brush is a great tool for removing charred residue from grates, but if you use a wire brush, be aware that bristles may fall off and later get stuck in your food. After cleaning your grill with a brush, use a wet cloth or paper towel to wipe off any loose bristles. One way to avoid the risk of bristles altogether is to instead use a balled-up piece of aluminum foil to scrub the grates. If the grill is cool, grasp the foil ball with your hand and scrub; if it's hot, use a pair of tongs as a makeshift handle.

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4. Separate raw and cooked foods

Cross contamination is the enemy, so don't use the same utensils and plates that came into contact with raw meats to serve the meal. Don't let fruits, vegetables and other foods you plan to eat uncooked come into contact with raw meats, meat juices or meat marinades. Wash your hands with soap and water before cooking and again after handling raw meats. Raw meats, including poultry and seafood, can be contaminated with salmonella, E. coli and other potentially harmful bacteria.

5. Refrigerate foods properly

Raw meat, poultry and seafood needs to be kept refrigerated below 40 degrees Fahrenheit until just before you're ready to throw them on the grill. Germs can start to multiply once the internal temperature rises above 40 degrees. In general, leftovers should be refrigerated or frozen within two hours of cooking. However, if you are grilling on a hot day and it's above 90 degrees outside, food should be refrigerated or frozen within one hour of cooking.

6. Avoid smoked, charred or well-done meats

Safe minimum cooking temperatures

  • Ground beef, pork, veal, lamb: 160 degrees
  • Ground chicken, turkey: 165 degrees
  • Steaks, roasts, chops: 145 degrees
  • Poultry: 165 degrees
  • Fresh pork, ham: 145 degrees
  • Precooked ham: 165 degrees
  • Fish with fins: 145 degrees

Source: foodsafety.gov

Consuming muscle meat including beef, pork, poultry and fish that has been prepared using high heat or smoke can increase cancer risks, according to the National Cancer Institute. Potentially harmful chemicals are formed when substances inside the meat react to the high heat, flames and smoke. To reduce risks, avoid prolonged cooking at high heat, use a microwave to precook meat prior to grilling, continuously turn meat when it's being cooked over a high-heat source, and removed charred portions before consuming, advises the National Cancer Institute.

7. Beware undercooked meats

In general, make sure that meat, poultry and seafood are cooked to their recommended safe internal temperatures by using a food thermometer. Otherwise, the heat may not be sufficient to kill any potentially harmful germs that may be present. Since fruits and vegetables may cook more quickly than meats, if you are cooking them together on a skewer — as with kebabs — make sure the meat is fully cooked to a safe internal temperature. Cooking meats and produce on separate skewers can make it easier to prepare each to the desired level of doneness.

Editor's Note: This article, originally published June 29, 2021, has been updated with new information.

Aaron Kassraie writes about issues important to military veterans and their families for AARP. He also serves as a general assignment reporter. Kassraie previously covered U.S. foreign policy as a correspondent for the Kuwait News Agency's Washington bureau and worked in news gathering for USA Today and Al Jazeera English.

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