FOOD SAFETY AND MEAT
For the most part, all raw and cooked meats, including pork, lamb, beef and game meats, are able to support the growth of the pathogens that cause foodborne illness. Bacteria and other microorganisms survive on foods that are moist, low in acid and high in protein. Raw meat, like all raw agricultural products, can be contaminated with the microorganisms that can make you sick. E. coli O157:H7 is a type of bacteria that has been found in raw hamburger meat. It has been the cause of foodborne illness outbreaks that have resulted in serious illness and death in some people, especially young children. Salmonella bacteria are found in raw or undercooked meat. If meat is not cooked completely, these bacteria can survive and make you sick.
Listeria monocytogenes and staphylococcus aureus are bacteria that have caused problems in cooked meat products, like cold cuts, luncheon meats, hot dogs and ham. Because bacteria grow easily in these products, there is always the chance that harmful microorganisms can contaminate cooked meat products during processing, storage, preparation, cooking or cooling. Careful handling of cooked meat products can prevent this.
Ground and needle-tenderized meats
Ground meats, including hamburger, pork sausage patties and ground lamb, are handled more during grinding and mixing. This increases the chances that the meat will be contaminated. In addition, some meats are tenderized during processing. This is done with needles that pierce the meat, driving bacteria from the meat surface to the inside of the meat. Ground and needle-tenderized meats should be cooked to an internal temperature of at least 160°F to be safe. Using a meat thermometer is the only way to be sure that the proper temperature is reached. Color is no longer considered a measure of safety.
Roasts and steaks that are not needle-tenderized are likely only to be contaminated on the surface. Cooking will destroy these surface bacteria. This makes it possible to safely eat a steak or roast that may be still be pink in the middle. When buying meat, ask if it has been needle-tenderized so that you know how to cook it safely.
Pork and Trichinosis
Even though it is less of a problem than in the past, humans may still get trichinosis (caused by the parasite, Trichinella spiralis) by eating undercooked pork. If it is potentially contaminated, pork should be adequately cooked to eliminate this disease causing parasite as well as bacteria that may be present. However, it is now considered safe to cook pork at a lower temperature. Pork can be enjoyed when cooked to an internal temperature of 145°F, and allowed to rest for 3 minutes after cooking. Trichinae are killed at 137°F. Ground pork should be cooked to the recommended minimum internal temperature of 160°F for all ground meats.
Game meats are thought to be a source of the trichinae parasite as well. Be sure to cook game meats until they reach an internal temperature of at least 160°F.
AT THE STORE, BUTCHER SHOP OR FARMERS’ MARKET
When shopping for raw meat and processed meat products such as cold cuts, lunch meats, and pre-cooked roast beef or ham, keep in mind that these foods have the potential to support the growth of pathogenic microorganisms. It is important to handle them safely. Bacteria and other microorganisms are likely to be on any raw animal product. Processed meats can become contaminated if not handled carefully.
When buying meat and meat products, think about these guidelines:
Raw meat ‑
- Be sure that the wrapping on the package is not ripped or torn.
- Be sure that the meat is cold to the touch or completely frozen.
- Put the package in a plastic bag so juices will not drip onto other foods and contaminate them with bacteria or other microorganisms.
- Keep raw meat away from cooked and ready-to-eat food and produce.
- Don't buy anything that has passed the "sell-by" date.
Processed or cooked meat ‑
- Be sure wrapping or packaging is not broken or torn.
- Cold foods should be cold (deli foods, hams) when you buy them.
- Hot foods should be very hot.
- Check for "sell-by" dates or "use-by" dates.
- Keep away from raw meat or produce to prevent cross-contamination of the cooked meat product with bacteria or microorganisms from raw products.
If possible, pick up meat products towards the end of your shopping trip. If it is very warm outside, you might want to bring along a cooler stocked with ice, or a freezer-pack, to keep meat cold on the way home. Get home as soon as possible, and store your meat products quickly.
When storing meat, follow these suggestions:
Keep your refrigerator and freezer as cold as possible (38--40°F in the refrigerator, 0°F in the freezer).
Raw meat ‑
- Store raw meat on the bottom shelves, on a plate to prevent dripping on foods below.
- Store meat in its original package: do not wash for storage (you will increase the chances of contaminating nearby surfaces or foods).
- Hamburger, ground pork, raw sausage or tenderized steaks should be stored for no more than two days from the time of purchase or the "sell-by" date.
- Steaks and roasts may be stored for up to five days from the time of purchase or the "sell-by" date
- If you will not use meat by this time, freeze for longer storage.
- Wrap meat for freezing in air-and moisture-proof freezing materials of plastic, heavy-duty foil or freezer paper.
-Label frozen meat with the date frozen.
-Keep frozen ground meat for no more than four months for best quality.
-Keep frozen steaks or roasts for no more than one year for best quality.
Cooked or processed meat products (ham, luncheon meats, pre-cooked meats)
- If meat is packaged in paper, re-package in air-tight containers, plastic bags or wraps.
- Store luncheon meats, hot dogs, or cold cuts for up to five days.
- Use pre-cooked roasts, ham, within four to five days.
- Cooked fresh meat may be frozen in air and moisture-proof freezing materials of plastic, heavy duty foil or freezer paper.
-Label frozen meat with the date frozen.
-Freeze for up to six months for best quality.
- Luncheon meats, cold cuts and hot dogs may be frozen, but may have undesirable flavor and quality changes.
- Label frozen meat with the date frozen.
- Use within one to three months for the best quality.
PREPARING, HANDLING, AND COOKING MEAT AND MEAT PRODUCTS
It is probably safest to think of all raw meats as contaminated with microorganisms. Then, you are more likely to handle them carefully and cook them so that the microorganisms are destroyed. Be sure to clean utensils, cutting boards and cooking surfaces with hot water and detergent before and after preparing raw meat.
It is best to thaw meat in the refrigerator. Place it on a rimmed plate or tray on the bottom shelf so that it will not drip onto other foods, contaminating them. If you need to thaw meat more quickly, you can safely thaw packaged meat in cold water, changing it every 15 minutes. Or, defrost it in the microwave oven, only if you plan to cook the meat thoroughly as soon as it is defrosted.
Always try to prepare meat ingredients or menu items after you have prepared salads, bread or other foods that will not be cooked before serving. Consider all raw meats to be contaminated. Do not wash meat before preparation as this is a good way to spread pathogens like Salmonella or E. coli O157:H7 to clean counters, sinks, sponges, etc. When preparing raw meat, be careful not to contaminate nearby counters, kitchen equipment, or even other foods you may have on the counter. Once done, be sure to wash all preparation surfaces and nearby as well to ensure that you are eliminating the microorganisms that may have come from the raw meat.
Proper cooking is of special concern with ground meat or meat that has been needle tenderized. These products can be the source of E. coli O157:H7, and other bacteria that may originate on the surface of the meat, but now that the meat is ground, can be surviving anywhere in the ground meat. These bacteria are destroyed if ground meat is cooked to an internal temperature of 160°F.
The only way to be sure of this is to use a food thermometer to check the temperature at the center of the food. A food thermometer is a good tool to have in your kitchen. Click for information on food thermometers here. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) recommends that you use temperature as a guide for food safety when cooking meats.
USE THESE COOKING TEMPERATURES FOR SAFETY
Ground beef, veal, lamb; Game meats: 160°F
Beef, Veal, Fresh Pork, Lamb steaks and roasts: 145°F
Reheating leftover meat dishes: 165°F
Fully cooked processed meats such as cold cuts, hot dogs, and some hams
These foods, while cooked and no longer a source of the bacteria or other microorganisms commonly associated with raw meat, are potentially hazardous. They are low in acid (with a few exceptions such as some cured sausages), high in protein, and high in moisture (unless dried, as in jerky). If kept unrefrigerated or at room temperature too long, they can support the growth of other pathogens such as Staphylococcus aureus. Listeria monocytogenes, which flourishes in some food processing environments and home refrigerators, can also contaminate these foods. Pay attention to use by dates. Once opened, use these products within 3-5 days. Use clean hands, utensils and cutting boards when preparing cold meat sandwiches. Refrigerate leftovers.
Once meat is cooked, cut into small pieces and place immediately in the refrigerator. If left at room temperature too long, bacteria can contaminate the leftovers. The environment is perfect for producing foodborne toxins that are heat stable and cannot be cooked away during reheating. Never leave leftovers out for more than 2-4 hours; even less than 2 hours if the room temperature is over 80 °F. Cooked meats or lunch meats can easily be contaminated with microorganisms. It is important to keep these foods refrigerated until ready to serve.
Use leftover steaks, chops or roasts within three to four days. Use leftover meat loaf and ground meat or meat salads within two days.
Want to read more?
USDA Fact sheets on meat preparation, including meat, game, goat, pork, bison, lamb, rabbit, bacon, veal, sausages, stuffing, jerky and hot dogs