S e a r c h


Government study links grilling and cancer;  media misreport story

July 26, 2001

The newest addition to the official list of cancer-causing agents is . . . barbecue?  

Veterans of real barbecue are often asked by others, "So, you like to barbecue.  But what's this I've heard?  That barbecue causes cancer?"

There are two separate stories here.  First, what is the science behind the fear about cancer and barbecue?  Second, have the media reported the science clearly and accurately?  Both these stories will be examined here.

Good news, bad news - an overview

Bad news:  scientists have found carcinogens (cancer-causing chemicals and agents) in cooked meat.  Good news:  the meat was not barbecued but was grilled - charred in fact - at very high temperatures.

Good news:  authentic barbecue (low n slow) is much healthier than grilling (hot n fast).  Bad news:  the media confuse the public by saying that grilling is the same as barbecue.  Then the media compound the problem by reporting (accurately) that eating charred hamburger meat is safe, so the public "learns" that barbecue is unsafe but grilling is safe - which are the opposite conclusions from the science.

Science, barbecue and cancer


The U.S. government may add two new agents to its official list of carcinogens, and both are found in meat that has been grilled (in fact, "charred") at a very high temperature.

Studies have shown that the risk of stomach cancer is significantly higher among those who eat charred meat muscle,  However, the same studies indicate that fish and ground meat (as in hamburgers) do not produce these carcinogens when grilled at a high temperature.  In other words, fast-food hamburgers appear safe, but not charred steaks.

National Toxicology Program

Chemicals and other agents which are suspected of causing cancer are nominated by scientists to the National Toxicology Program every two years.  The National Toxicology Program (NTP) is a an interagency program headquartered at the National Institutes of Health's National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) located in Research Triangle Park, NC.  NTP staff evaluate the nominated chemicals and select some for further study, and a panel of specialists assesses the suspects for three years.  There are now 218 carcinogens on the NTP list.

NTP announcement

On July 24, 2001, a Press Release issed by NTP announced that it plans to review two substances formed in cooking for possible listing in the eleventh edition of the federal Report on Carcinogens, which will be published in 2004.

The NTP, which is headquartered at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, prepares such a report every two years.  The report is mandated by Congress to help ensure that substances or conditions that are likely to cause cancer are properly recognized by the public and regulatory agencies.  Substances may be listed as "known" or as "reasonably anticipated" human carcinogens.

The NTP's announcement of its plans, which was published in the Federal Register, asks the public and scientists to comment during the next 60 days on the nominations and to provide any data on whether they are carcinogenic, how much is produced, how they are used and in what ways people are exposed.  The NTP nominated a total of 16 agents, including two substances formed in cooking:

  • 2-Amino-3,4-dimethylimidazo[4,5-f]quinoline (or MeIQ), a substance formed in food during heating or cooking and found in cooked meat and fish.
  • Phenylimidazopyridine, which, like MeIQ, is formed in food during heating and cooking and is found in cooked meat and fish.
Charred meat and cancer-causing HCAs 

The NTP nomination found that people who consume well-done grilled beef were more likely to get stomach cancer than those who ate it rare or medium rare.  The newest suspects include chemicals in "well-done meats".

Seth Borenstein reported that Jim Felton, a scientist with California's Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in Berkeley, said, "If you eat a lot of well-done cooked meat products, you have higher risks of colon cancer, breast cancer and possibly prostate cancer."  Felton explained that meats cooked at high temperatures contain two chemicals, called heterocyclic amines (HCAs), which are suspected of causing cancer.

"These things are bad," he said of the two chemicals,  "The only good part is that they are there in very low concentrations."

The HCAs in well-done meat are created when the muscle in meat is grilled, broiled or pan-fried to high temperatures -- around 400 degrees, according to the National Cancer Institute.

Hamburgers are safe

According to Felton, meat which is thinly sliced and cooked quickly (which includes fish and fast-food hamburgers) is safe.  Why?  It appears that the risky chemicals are formed only when an intact muscle is grilled and charred.  Hamburger meat, having been ground, does not produce the chemicals.


Not all scientists accept the theory.  Gilbert Ross, medical director of the American Council on Science and Health, a New York nonprofit organization that downplays environmental risks, says that the list scares people about "the wrong things."  Ross says that the government should spend its time attacking cigarettes.  "What this list does is distract the public rather than educate the public in any reasonable way."

Avoiding the risk

To avoid the risk of the cancer-causing chemical formation, experts advise cooking meat at lower temperatures and using marinades.  Wrapping meats in foil and microwaving the meat first also appears to reduce the cancer risk.

The key, according to experts, is to avoid charring the meat.

Media reports on these findings


The media have reported the story widely, but the reports have confused the public and exacerbated the problem by equating barbecue and grilling.  To compound the problem, the media has reported that grilling hamburgers does not produce the carcinogens.

From this, the public is likely to "learn" (incorrectly) that "barbecue is bad" but "high temperature grilling is safe".  Such are the results when the media does not report clearly.

Borensteins's Story

Seth Borenstein, a reporter for Knight-Ridder Tribune News, wrote about the carcinogens in a story that was widely reported in newspapers across the United States.  (See, e.g., the story in the Houston Chronicle, reported on July 25, 2001).

Borenstein's story in the Houston Chronicle (where the story headlines are presumably not written by the story's author but instead by a news editor) is entitled "Grilled meats added to cancer-causer list" and the subheading says "Two chemicals from charring raise risk".  These headlines accurately summarize the study's findings relating to grilling and charring.

But Borenstein begins his report with a whopper of a first sentence:  

Barbecuers beware -- the latest item on the government's list of substances suspected of causing cancer is grilled meats.  (Emphasis added.)  Id.

The public will "learn" that barbecue causes cancer.  Later in the story, after some technical scientific explanation, the story continues, 

But meat sliced thin and cooked quickly -- including fish and all fast food hamburgers -- is safe, Felton said.  (Emphasis added.)  Id.

These and similar statements mislead and misinform the public into believing:

  • Eating something called barbecue is unsafe.
  • Eating fast-food charred hamburgers is safe.
  • Ergo, cooking meat "low ' slow" is unsafe but charring it is safe. 

Action the Q'munity should take

The barbecue community (Q'munity) can and should take action to minimize the damage being caused to barbecue's reputation by inaccurate reports in the media.

Reasons that the Q'munity must respond

The barbecue community and virtually all of the barbecue organizations, including the Southern California Barbecue Association, want to help preserve and spread the knowledge and appreciation of real barbecue.  They want to educate the public about authentic American barbecue, its origin and methods.

Contemporary culture and the media do not understand authentic barbecue.  Barbecuing a beef brisket requires 12 or more hours, which is far too slow in a culture which values fast food and 10-minute cooking techniques.

However, as the culture begins to value both the quality of food and its shared cultural history, barbecue should become more appreciated by society.  Certainly, a very small percentage of the public has ever tasted real barbecue (Tony Roma's and McRibs notwithstanding), and when people try barbecue for the first time, they are hooked for life on its tender, smoky taste.  Furthermore, when they learn that barbecue is the only authentic American cuisine, taught by Native Americans to the Spanish explorers in the 1490s, they value the cooking method that much more.

Nothing would hurt the appreciation of real barbecue more than the public's belief that barbecue is dangerous and risky.  It is a fact of modern life that the media equate barbecue and grilling, and it is the job of the Q'munity to educate the public on the difference between barbecue and grilling.

Now that the government is considering adding grilled meat to the list of carcinogens, it is important for the Q'munity to act now to prevent the public at large from equating barbecue and cancer.

Official Comment

Notice of the two cooking-related nominations and a request for public comment have been published in the Federal Register.  The barbecue community should take advantage of the opportunity to comment.  Comments should request that, if the NTA decides to includes these two HCAs in the list of carcinogens, the listing clearly differentiate between barbecue and grilling.  In particular, the report should define authentic barbecue and should encourage barbecue as opposed to grilling and other high-temperature cooking methods.

All public comments must be made before September 24, 2001.

The Southern California Barbecue Association will make its website available to the Q'munity to coordinate comments.  This website will include the text of official comments and will give due credit to those members of the Q'munity who help in this regard.

The request for public comment says, in part:

The NTP solicits public input on these [two HCAs] and asks for relevant information concerning their carcinogenesis, as well as current production data, use patterns, or human exposure information.  The NTP also invites interested parties to identify any scientific issues related to the listing of a specific nomination in the RoC that they feel should be addressed during the reviews.  Comments . . . will be accepted through September 24, 2001.  Individuals submitting public comments are asked to include relevant contact information (name, affiliation (if any), address, telephone, fax, and email).  Comments or questions should be directed to Dr. C. W. Jameson at [the address below].  Id.

Comments should be sent to Dr. Jameson at the following addresses: 

Dr. C. W. Jameson
National Toxicology Program
Report on Carcinogens
79 Alexander Drive, Building 4401, Room 3118
P.O. Box 12233
Research Triangle Park, NC 27709

Phone: (919) 541-4096
Fax: (919) 541-0144
Email: jameson@NIEHS.nih.gov

Please write your own comments and send them by postal mail, fax or email.  Here is a text of the email message sent by the author, which you may use as a guide:

Regarding the inclusion of HCAs in the NTP Report on Carcinogens

Dr. Jameson,

I am a member of the Southern California Barbecue Association, the Kansas City Barbeque Society, and other national organizations which promote the understanding and appreciation of authentic American barbecue.  I live in California's 36th Congressional District and am represented by Senator Dianne Feinstein, Senator Barbara Boxer, and Congresswoman Jane Harmon.  I am writing to express my concern that "human exposure information" regarding HCAs has been misreported.

At the request of National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and of Dr. Takashi Sugimura, President Emeritus, National Cancer Center of Japan, the National Toxicology Program (NTP) is considering the nomination of two heterocyclic amines (HCAs) to the Report on Carcinogens.  These HCAs are formed during high-temperature cooking (such as grilling and frying), are found in cooked meat muscle (and apparently not in ground meat, like hamburger), and may be human carcinogens. 

My concern lies with the description of the exposure and formation of HCAs, because scientists, the government and the media equate barbecue with grilling.  Human exposure to these HCAs and their formation are described in press accounts as occurring "from barbecue".  See, for example, the story in the Houston Chronicle of July 25, 2001, written by Seth Borenstein, which begins, "Barbecuers beware -- the latest item on the government's list of substances suspected of causing cancer is grilled meats."  This and similar reports warn the public against "barbecue" but assure the public that charred hamburgers are safe.  From these accounts, the public is likely to conclude, incorrectly, that barbecue is risky but charred meat is safe, including hamburgers and even steak, since "if charred hamburger is safe, then charred steak must also be safe".

The fact is that barbecue and grilling are very different and virtually opposite cooking methods.  

Barbecue is a very ancient method of slow cooking meat at low temperatures over wood coals.  Five hundred years ago in pre-Columbian America, meat was cooked slowly at a low temperature to smoke, dry, tenderize and preserve it.  The method was taught by Native Americans to the earliest Spanish explorers around 1495.  Even the word "barbecue" is itself a Native American word, from the Taino people of the Caribbean.  Our first President, George Washington, wrote about his enjoyment of barbecue, which referred to an all-day celebration, including slowly cooking meat.  Barbecue requires a low temperature -- around 212F, the boiling point of water -- and a slow cooking process over wood coals.  It is described best as "low 'n slow".

Grilling, on the other hand, is a relatively new method of fast cooking at high temperatures, above 400F and often above 900F.  It is a relatively new cooking method, because grilling requires tender cuts of meat, which became available only in the last century.  Grilled steaks and hamburgers are not barbecued but grilled.

Because barbecue cooking requires many hours of slow cooking at low temperatures (in the range of 200F to 250F) from wood and wood coals, few members of the general public have ever tasted real barbecue.  Instead, they believe that MacDonald's grilled McRibs and Tony Roma's grilled baby back ribs are barbecue.

If our government and media do not educate the public and clearly explain the difference between barbecue and grilling, then the public will be continue to be confused.  In the case of these nominated HCAs, such confusion may lead tens of thousands of Americans to conclude incorrectly that barbecue is dangerous but grilling is safe.  As in the Houston Chronicle story, described above, people may come to believe that meat barbecued at low temperatures is dangerous, because it is "barbecued", yet meat charred at high temperatures is safe, because grilled ground meat (like hamburgers) contain few or no HCAs.  

On behalf of those who know and love authentic American barbecue, I respectfully request that you use your good offices to ensure that any findings with respect to HCAs as carcinogens clearly state that HCAs are formed during the process of grilling meat and not during the process of barbecuing meat.  Please use your best efforts to ensure that the media and public at large understand the fact that real barbecue, the only authentic American cuisine which was taught by our Native American ancestors, is a safe alternative to grilling.

Thank you for your assistance in this important matter.

With best regards, 

Joe O'Connell

Copies of this email were sent to Senator Feinstein, Senator Boxer, Representative Harmon, and Dr. Takashi Sugimura.

Members of the Q'munity are encouraged to sent their own comments to Dr. Jameson, the President, their Senators and their Representative.  If a copy is sent to the Association, it will be posted on the website and included in a database of comments.

Letters to the editor

Letters to the editor (and to television and online media) are similarly effective in raising the awareness of the public that:

  • Barbecue is an ancient cooking method that requires low temperatures and long cooking times.
  • Grilling is a new cooking method that requires high temperatures and short cooking times.
  • Barbecue is not grilling.
  • Grilled meat may contain carcinogenic compounds (HCAs).
  • Barbecue meat is safe and contains no carcinogens.

Members of the Q'munity should send letters, faxes and email to correct stories that equate barbecue with grilling.  The media will change their stories, and the public will come to know and appreciate real barbecue.


Scientists have evidence that the cooking method known as grilling (cooking at high temperatures over direct heat) produces carcinogens in charred meat muscle.  There is no evidence that carcinogens are produced when grilling fish or ground meat, and there is no evidence that carcinogens are produced with the cooking method known as barbecue.

The media does not report the story, however.  Instead, the media equates "barbecue" with "grilling", referring to both as cooking at a high temperature.  It thus misinforms that public that eating barbecue is unsafe.  It compounds the error by reporting that eating charred hamburgers is safe, so a scientifically-unsophisticated public is likely to conclude that, if charred hamburgers are safe, then any charred meat is safe, so long as it is not barbecued.

Barbecue means meat cooked 'low 'n slow" in the tradition of America's only authentic cuisine.  Those who know and enjoy barbecue must inform themselves about the science so that they can repair the damage done by the misinformation of the media.  Here are is the four facts that barbecue cooks must know and be able to explain to their misinformed friends:

  1. HCAs are chemicals that cause cancer.  
  2. HCAs are formed when a meat muscle like a steak is cooked at very high temperatures -- like grilling or frying.  
  3. HCAs are not formed when ground meat like hamburgers is grilled.  
  4. HCAs are not formed when meat is slow-cooked at low temperatures -- like Dutch oven cooking or barbecue.

Related Sites:

Federal Register Notice and Request for Comment

July 24, 2001 NIEHS Press Release

National Toxicology Program

Houston Chronicle Story by Seth Borenstein





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