Burger Smoke on the Menu in California’s Air Pollution Fight

Turn to the nation's most objective and informative daily environmental news resource to learn how the United States and key players around the world are responding to the environmental...

By Emily C. Dooley

That juicy, charbroiled burger you just ordered might be doing more than adding inches to your waistline. In California, flame-kissed beef patties are also fouling the air and the state is cracking down on pollution from restaurant grills.

Regulators in California’s worst pockets of air pollution are turning up the heat on restaurants: Air pollution control districts want burger places to register whether they use charbroilers, while others are offering restaurants money to switch to greener technology.

Think of that black smoke coming from the chimney of a restaurant or fast food joint. When the grease from the cooking meat falls through the grill onto a hot radiant surface, airborne particles and volatile organic chemicals are emitted into the air. Small particles can aggravate asthma and contribute to heart attacks while volatile organic compounds contribute to ozone, a lung irritant.

In some areas with bad air quality, that alone could mean Clean Air Act violations.

Hold the Pickles ... and the Particles

“It is a major source,” said Philip Fine, deputy executive officer for planning and rule development for the South Coast Air Quality Management District. “When you look at food, under-fired charbroilers is a vast majority of those emissions.”

In the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District alone, state regulators said the district needs to reduce this type of air pollution by 0.57 tons per day, spokeswoman Jaime Holt said in an email to Bloomberg Environment.

The district in June issued a rule requiring restaurants to register under-fired charbroilers, to get a sense of what is out there. The district has reached out to about 4,000 restaurants, Holt said.

Restaurants in the Bay Area Air Quality Management District already must register if at least 1,000 pounds of beef per week is cooked and on average at least 800 pounds is sold within that time period. The district didn’t respond to requests for comment.

And in 2019, South Coast will start the rulemaking process to consider regulating these beloved burger machines. An estimated 13,000 restaurants in the district have the charbroilers in question, South Coast’s Planning and Rules Manager Tracy Goss told Bloomberg Environment.

Since 2002, San Joaquin Valley has required pollution controls on chain-driven commercial charbroilers. The cost and technology have made it hard to apply the same restrictions when it comes to the under-fired systems. They can cost $30,000 to $80,000 to purchase and another $10,000 to $60,000 to install. Annual maintenance can run upwards of $100,000 at busy restaurants, according to the district.

You Can Still Have It Your Way

While regulators are trying to keep residents’ lungs clear, they’re also mindful that reducing smoke could change the burger experience.

“We don’t want to do anything that’s going to affect the look and taste of the food,” Goss said.

“It has been seen as a need but it can be really difficult,” said Sylvia Vanderspek, chief of the air quality planning branch for the California Air Resources Board. It’s a significant part of the problem in the San Joaquin Valley, she said.

While the cost is significant, alternative routes are even more costly. San Joaquin estimates that it could cost $35 million to retrofit or upgrade under-fired systems in the district. To get the same reductions in another way, the district would have to impose restrictions on other businesses that could cost up to $14 billion, Holt said.

“A lot of the businesses we’re talking about that would be affected are small mom and pops,” Fine said. “Affordability is a big issue.”

Getting buy-in hasn’t been easy.

In 2009, San Joaquin set aside $500,000 for an upgrade program but got no applications. It was upped to $750,000 and a task force was formed. One company, The Habit Burger Grill, a restaurant chain known for its charbroiled burgers, did a pilot. Smoke issues forced a temporary closure but, once resolved, the company expanded the technology to seven other restaurants, according to the air district.

Habit Burger Grill declined to comment.

Other companies, including Chipotle Mexican Grill, also installed the technology, but didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Request Environment & Energy Report