Every year, an estimated 48 million people in this country come down with a food-borne illness. While rarely dangerous, there are instances, especially for individuals with compromised immune systems or other under-lying conditions, where food-borne illness is serious. But for most people, it’s a really unpleasant experience that can last several days. Fortunately, there are a few simple steps that you can take – namely cooking thoroughly and observing good hygiene – to avoid getting sick.
But first let’s talk about what causes food-borne illness. The typical culprits are pathogenic bacteria, including Salmonella and certain strains of E. coli. Unfortunately, these bacteria provide no warning signs that they are present on food. Unlike simple spoilage bacteria, which give meat an off-odor or turn fruits and vegetables slimy, pathogenic bacteria do not affect the taste, texture or smell of food. So we have no way of knowing if they are present. That’s why it’s hard if you do get sick, to determine the cause.
Just about any food can come in contact with pathogenic bacteria at any point in the food production process – while growing in the field or pasture, being harvested, processed, manufactured, stored and prepared in the kitchen. Many people assume that meat or seafood is the likely cause of food poisoning. And historically this has likely been true. But increasingly fresh fruits and vegetables are being recognized as the dominant concern. According to the Center for Disease Control, bacteria on raw fruits and vegetables are now the number one cause of food-borne illness.
The meat industry has been heavily regulated for many years precisely because of concerns about food safety. The most likely point of entry for most pathogenic bacteria on meat is from soil on the hide of the animal or from contaminated intestines. The three meat processors Firsthand Foods works with have extensive sanitation procedures in place to prevent contamination. In addition, at least one full-time USDA inspector is located at the plant to oversee slaughter, fabrication and manufacturing processes and confirm implementation of a wide range of preventive practices.
The presence of a single pathogen is unlikely to make you sick. Bacterial counts need to accumulate and reach certain thresholds before they will make you sick. The amount of pathogenic bacteria that will develop in food is determined by both time and temperature. Some bacteria develop rapidly in warm temperatures, others take a lot longer. It all depends on the organism. That’s why our processors have detailed plans and procedures in place that take into account the life cycle of specific pathogens. As a general rule, maintaining cold temperatures throughout the production cycle is critical to prevent the build-up of bacteria.
Freezing meat halts the growth of bacteria but does not kill the bacteria. So when you thaw a piece of meat, it’s important to keep it cold in the refrigerator (less than 40 degrees) if you’re not planning to eat it right away or to cook it quickly after it’s thawed to room temperature.
Pathogenic bacteria typically live on the surface of food. So when you sear a pork chop or steak at high temperature, you are killing the bacteria that could make you sick. That’s good news and explains why there are so many consumer warnings and guidelines about cooking meat to specific internal temperatures. For ground products like ground beef or sausages, there is not one surface area but many all mixed together. So these products are particularly important to cook thoroughly.
Here’s what you can do to prevent food-borne illness:
DO WASH your hands and work surfaces thoroughly.
Do NOT WASH raw poultry or meat before cooking it, even though some older recipes may call for this step. Washing raw poultry or meat can spread bacteria to other foods, utensils, and surfaces, and does not prevent illness.
USE separate chopping boards for meat and produce. This is super important for preventing cross contamination.
COOK your meat thoroughly. You can kill bacteria by cooking poultry and meat to a safe internal temperature. Remember to use a cooking thermometer to check the temperature. You can’t tell if meat is properly cooked by looking at its color or juices.
STORE meats in the freezer or refrigerator, preferably on the bottom shelf to prevent leakage dripping on other foods. Leftovers should be stored in the refrigerator within 2 hours after preparation. Large cuts of meat, such as roasts or a whole turkey, should be divided into small quantities for refrigeration so they’ll cool quickly enough to prevent bacteria from growing.