BATON ROUGE, La. — “Is it safe to cook a chicken on a beer can?”

I asked the cooking expert with the USDA Meat & Poultry Hotline.

“To do what?” the expert said.

I explained that I was testing a recipe for beer-can chicken and wanted to make sure it was safe to cook on a beer can. I told the USDA representative how the chicken would be cooked and mentioned that cooking chicken on beer cans was a grilling fad across the country.

I wasn’t worried about the beer can exploding in the heat because you open the top of the beer can so the steam can escape as the beer heats. What I wanted to make sure of was that the inks used on the beer-can’s label were food safe since they would be coming in contact with the chicken.

The USDA food safety whiz, Bessie Berry, had never heard of beer-can chicken and said she would review the packaging information on beer cans and get back in touch with me. She did.

The exteriors of beer cans are not approved for food contact because they have not been tested for this use, was the USDA answer to my inquiry. The cans were not designed to be in contact with meat or poultry and were not tested to see if the inks used in printing the beer-can labels contained chemicals that could be toxic or carcinogenic when heated, Berry said. The USDA evaluates the package’s safeness specific to the purpose of its use, she added. The beer can has only been tested as a beverage container, not as a cooking utensil.

Berry could not say that there was no risk of migration of harmful chemicals from the beer-can label into the poultry if the chicken was cooked on a beer can. She suggested I call Kimberly Rawlings at the FDA and see if they had any knowledge about whether or not beer-can label inks are safe when heated.

Since I couldn’t get a go-ahead from the government as to whether or not beer-can chicken is a safe food to eat, I called Steven Raichlen, grilling guru and author of a new cookbook titled “Beer-Can Chicken,” to find out if his publisher had tested the inks of the beer cans for toxicity when heated.

Raichlen said he was confident there was no problem food safetywise because the beer can doesn’t get that hot.

“We did a lot of research on this,” Raichlen said. “Inks (edible) are applied to a can at a temperature in excess of 500 degrees. The can never gets hotter than 212 degrees in the process of making beer-can chicken.”

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