Specifically, beware of accidentally ingesting broken-off bristles from brushes. Apparently, those bristles can stick to the grill and wind up in hamburgers or other food.
While this isn't exactly an epidemic — a small number of cases have been reported so far — it is a real problem with unpleasant results.
According to a recent report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, internal injuries have been reported from accidental ingestion of bristles, including six cases at Rhode Island Hospital between July 2009 and November 2010. Six more cases were identified from March 2011 to June 2012.
Dr. David Grand, a radiologist who works in the hospital's Department of Diagnostic Imaging, says he and his colleagues realized there was a problem after finding ingested bristles in a couple of patients who'd fallen ill after barbecues.
"We all put our heads together and said, 'Hey, has anyone seen this before?' Once we had three cases identified, we realized that something was happening," he says.
Since reporting the findings to the CDC, doctors at the hospital have received emails from around the country reporting similar cases.
No particular brand or style of brush has been identified as more problematic than another, and the Consumer Product Safety Commission is reviewing available data to see if there's a need for a consumer warning, product recall or other regulatory action.
In the meantime, health officials recommend examining the grill surface carefully before cooking to make sure there are no stray bristles.
Another possibility is to use alternative methods to clean the grill, no bristles needed.
Chef and veteran griller Bruce Aidells usually takes care of grill residue by leaving the grill on for 5 to 10 minutes after he's done cooking (this happens automatically with charcoal, of course). This turns the residue into ash that can be wiped off when the grill cools.
That's great for after you've cooked. But what about before? That's where oil comes in.
Well-oiled grill grates prevent food from sticking. The less food that sticks, the less messy the grates will be afterward. And that means less cleaning.
So how do you get well-oiled grates? Don't be crazy and spritz them with cooking spray while the grill is going. This can cause dangerous flaring.
To oil your grates, start by heating the grill. Once it is at temperature and you are ready to cook, wad up a paper towel. Soak the paper towel in an inexpensive high-heat oil, such as canola or vegetable. Grasp the oiled towel with tongs, then rub it over the grates until they are nicely coated with oil.
Why not do it when the grill grates are cool? Because the oil will burn off as the grill heats. You want to do it just before putting the food on the grill. That's also why cooking spray isn't a great choice for grill grates. To be applied safely, you need to do it will the grill is cool. And that means most of it will be gone by the time you add food.
Combine this oiling technique with Aidells' suggestion of burning off any food residue after grilling and you won't need to do much grill brushing.
But Aidells, author of "The Great Meat Cookbook" coming out this fall, is more interested in cooking than cleaning. "I'm not so fastidious about cleaning my grill," he says with a laugh.
CDC advisory: http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/mm6126a4.htm