ANSES's recommendations for preventing food poisoning and exposure to harmful chemicals

Traditionally, the arrival of warm weather goes hand in hand with outdoor barbecues. But using the barbecue to grill meats requires certain precautionary measures. This is because cooking foods at high temperatures, especially in direct contact with flames, can lead to the formation of chemical compounds on their surface, some of which have carcinogenic properties. In addition, ANSES has observed a resurgence of food poisoning cases in the summer period, which may be due to improper barbecuing. So, to let you to take advantage of this cooking method while avoiding exposure to infections and hazardous substances, ANSES is providing you with its recommendations. 

Barbecues and exposure to chemicals

Is barbecuing dangerous?

No, except if toxic compounds settle on foods or are inhaled when charcoal or firelighters are burning.

But caution should prevail, since cooking foods at high temperatures, especially in direct contact with flames, can lead to the formation of chemical compounds on their surface, some of which have carcinogenic properties, such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and benzo(a)pyrene (B(a)P) in particular.

Nevertheless, all of the scientific data currently available show that the risk of excess food exposure to these compounds when barbecuing is fully limited if the principles for using the technical barbecues existing on the market and certain cooking recommendations are complied with.

The recommendations issued by the Agency are based on a PAH study. On 29 July 2003, the Agency issued an opinion and the French Consumer Safety Committee (CSC) also produced a report on the subject.

ANSES's recommendations

  • Adjust the cooking height: To prevent mass formation of PAHs and pyrolytically derived products of amino acids, food must be cooked by the heat of the embers, and not in direct contact with the flames (which often reach temperatures of around 500°C).  It is not advised to exceed a cooking temperature of around 220°C, which, in the case of barbecuing, generally means placing the rack at least 10 cm from the embers if it is a horizontal barbecue, or better still, opting for a vertical barbecue.
  • Consumers who often use a charcoal barbecue should use refined charcoal (> 85% carbon or category A) rather than ordinary charcoal.
  • Firelighters, whether in liquid, solid or gel form, are intended to facilitate the lighting of charcoal with a view to creating glowing embers. They must be burned away completely before the meat is placed on the rack. They should not be used to rekindle the fire under any circumstances.
  • Prevent fat drippings from falling into the flames.The leaner the meat, the lower the risk of PAH formation.  But if cooking techniques are poorly applied, this risk increases. This is because drops of fat falling on the glowing embers from the meat may provoke flames and smoke which contribute to PAH formation in contact with the meat. It is therefore recommended to cover the source with a light sprinkling of ash or remove visible fat from the meat.

Barbecuing and food poisoning

Each year, ANSES observes a resurgence of food poisoning cases in the summer period. Hygiene practices linked to outdoor eating during picnics and barbecues, are suspected to be a cause. The Agency has therefore decided to provide a summary of the precautions to be taken when cooking meat on the barbecue.

  • Store meat before cooking in the coldest part of the refrigerator and remove it at the last minute.
  • Washand dry your hands thoroughly before and after handling raw meat.
  • Use a separate cutting board to cut raw meat and another board for other foods, in order to avoid transferring microorganisms from the raw meat to other foods (raw salad ingredients, for example).
  • Cooking poultry:
    • Poultry must always be cooked well done. The flesh should never be pink and should separate easily from the bone.  It is recommended that large pieces of poultry on the bone be pre-cooked in a pan before barbecuing it.  Marinades and sauces used to marinate poultry should never be consumed without first being cooked separately in order to eliminate any bacteria coming from the raw meat.
  • Cooking sausages and ground meat:
    • Ground meat, meatballs and sausages should be cooked well done, as pathogenic bacteria can survive if not heated through. 
  • Never reuse the same dishes, platters or utensils used for cutting or carrying raw meat, to serve the meat once it has been cooked.
  • When having a picnic or a barbecue, never allow leftovers to sit at ambient temperature for more than two hours before returning them to the refrigerator. 
  • Make sure you regularly clean the fat off racks, grates and fat dripping pans if you have an electric barbecue. 
  • Finally, in general it is recommended to avoid handling foods or utensils if you are suffering from a bacterial, viral or parasitic infection (gastroenteritis symptoms, for example) in order to avoid contaminating all your guests. 
It should also be noted that due to fire risks, a barbecue should never be used in a closed area (such as a garage), or in windy conditions, and you should always have material for extinguishing flames nearby (water pail, fire extinguisher, etc.), in case of an incident. The fire should always be monitored carefully and be fully extinguished after use. Children should never be allowed near the barbecue. You should make sure the barbecue is stable and a long fork should be used to handle the food.