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Injury Prevention and Safety

How safe is your meat? It's in your hands.

We've been hearing about Salmonella and E. coli bacteria in the news, and yet the meat supply in this country has often been called the safest in the world. At least it was until 1992-93 when a major food-borne outbreak happened as a result of people eating hamburgers contaminated with bacteria. Now everyone is aware of the danger of consuming undercooked (i.e., less than "well done") "burgers." And no one was ever comfortable with eating a poultry product that was pink or a bit bloody. Now everyone feels safe if these meats are cooked to the state of well done. That will kill the bacteria that cause these terrible diseases. However, does the public really understand the implications of having these organisms in our raw meats? I don't think so. Some groups like children, the elderly, those receiving treatment for cancer, or who have chronic diseases or organ transplants, and people infected with HIV/AIDS are especially at risk for becoming seriously ill or even dying from food-borne illnesses. Food safety is everyone's business.

First, all of these organisms (germs) that concern us are found in the intestinal tract (gut) of the animals from which the meat comes. These organisms are also found in the animal's feces, which sometimes contaminates our meat during processing. The government allows some level of these organisms (called coliforms), in our meat supply. There is no tolerance or acceptable level for coliforms in our water supply, but it's "OK" for the meat supply. We have allowable limits in raw meats because the organisms are always there. If the meat items are improperly handled, for example, thawing on the counter top, then these organisms grow to unacceptable numbers, or go above the tolerance. The simple truth of the matter is we can find coliforms in and on a lot of our foods; other foods have also been connected to many food-borne illnesses.

That brings me to the second point. Many believe that cooking cures all. That's right, cook it and eat it, and everything will be "OK." That has been the philosophy of the meat and poultry industry for decades. Even during the 1992-93 outbreak, the blame was placed on improper cooking. Now no one dares to eat a "rare" hamburger. The consumer has always been led to believe that food poisoning would not be a problem if everything were cooked properly. If there was a problem, we checked to see where the food was handled and how it was prepared. Obviously, the cook was to blame and should have known that food is a hazard unless prepared properly. So, consumer education has been a vital part of ensuring food safety.

The third point concerns what the government is doing to protect our food supply. A program implemented in 1997 is called the pathogen (disease-causing organism) reduction-HACCP concept. In simple terms, the plant producing the meat product is responsible for reducing the hazard (pathogens). The government spot checks to see if the plant's system is working. The key word is "reduction," not elimination. That's right. The hazard will be reduced but not eliminated. If we wanted to get rid of disease-causing organisms, then we would have to talk about things such as irradiation, which by the way has been approved for sanitizing meats. However, right now there's not enough support from the industry or consumers to carry through such a program. Maybe when most of our meat comes from large farms and large processing plants then perhaps irradiation will be a viable solution. But that is a different subject.

This brings me to my main point. The consumer should handle meat items such as hamburger or chicken with extreme care. Remember these items might be contaminated with fecal coliforms, which may make you sick. When cooking, think of everything these meats touch within the home--counter tops, cutting boards, the plate that carries the patties to the grill, the juices that drip out of the container, and the dishrag used to wipe up the drippings. Using the same dishrag over and over to clean up without washing it may just be spreading germs. And what about your hands? Everything needs to be cleaned and sanitized before coming in contact with other raw foods, food contact surfaces or the finished, cooked product to avoid cross contamination. Especially your hands. Rinsing your hands with cold water is not enough. Wash with soap for at least twenty seconds, and use warm (almost too hot) water.

Other handling tips for safe foods include such things as keeping hot foods hot (>140oF) and cold foods cold (<40oF) before, during and immediately after serving. Perishable foods are at greatest risk of developing problems from the time of purchase until completely consumed. When selecting perishable foods at the store try to get them to the refrigerator as quickly as possible. Thawing of foods should take place in the refrigerator or the microwave (if the food will be cooked immediately), never on the counter top. Leftovers should not be left out but placed in the refrigerator as soon after eating as possible. Remember, these organisms grow to dangerous levels at room temperature. Proper cooking will kill many of these but some survive high temperatures, and some produce toxins which are not even destroyed by cooking. Ground meat should be cooked to a temperature of at least 160oF and poultry should be cooked to at least 170oF. Cooking of the outside surfaces of steaks and roasts (145oF) should be sufficient as the surfaces of these meats are all that are contaminated.

Although meat and poultry items do have the potential to cause illnesses, careful handling by the consumer can eliminate a lot of problems. Remember that food safety is in your hands also.

Try the links below to the FDA's Web site on Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. In particular, try taking the "Food Safety Test."

For more information:

FDA's Center for Food Safety & Applied Nutrition

FDA's Food Safety Test

For more information:

Go to the Injury Prevention and Safety health topic, where you can:

This article is a NetWellness exclusive.

Last Reviewed: Feb 13, 2006

Jaime  Ackerman Foster, MPH, RD, LD Jaime Ackerman Foster, MPH, RD, LD
Extension Nutrition Associate
College of Education and Human Ecology
The Ohio State University