By Chad Carr, University of Florida
Expectant fathers fret about many things. My physiologist friends fondly reflect on chronicling their wives’ pregnancies. Some concern themselves with constructing nursery furniture. As a meat scientist, my worries during my wife’s pregnancies were on food safety.
During the summer of 2011, while expecting our oldest child, we had the opportunity to visit family and friends in Tennessee. We enjoyed sharing the news of the pregnancy in person. After congratulating us, my best friend from high school struck up a conversation about modern food production. He is also a father and was concerned after watching a documentary about food. He had made friends with a self-proclaimed “food-savvy” guy whose opinions, combined with those of the documentary, convinced him that many health problems, including childhood obesity and diabetes, were coming from meat.
My buddy complained about the prices he had been paying for niche meat products and inquired if my family would be willing to sell him and Mr. Food Savvy a pork carcass or a side of grass-fed beef for their freezers. I responded that my family recently sold their sows and had marketed their weaned calves but gave him a few contacts. I then explained that a high-fat, high-sugar, Western diet is a big contributor to these health challenges. I also tried to assure him there was no feed or meat ingredient going into commodity fresh meat, which results in these health problems, without a big contribution from the rest of their diet.
We met again a few nights later for a cookout. My wife and I went through the serving lines at different times and, after fixing my plate, I became a nervous father-to-be, quickly checking with my wife because many of the hamburger patties were quite red in the center. She had the same concern and had chosen a steaming hot, charred hot dog, a true “food-savvy” move.
I casually asked my friend who cooked the meat. Of course, it was Mr. Food Savvy. He assumed the burgers were safe because they were grass-fed. I introduced myself and casually asked him to cook the ground beef longer. An hour later, I was in the kitchen putting away leftovers when I encountered a plate of fresh bratwurst that were not around when I came through the line. Excitedly, I thought I would sample one before putting them away. The brat was so undercooked, it snapped in half when I picked it up. As I looked at the internal color, it was raw. I estimated it could not have been heated over 120°F. I asked my buddy if he saw this, and he replied, “What’s wrong with that?”
Many well-meaning people are baffled by the pseudoscience, which is perceived to come from “food-savvy” experts on Facebook, Instagram and Netflix. Fresh food is not sterile. Food choice is excellent, but food which marks multiple credence boxes is no different from commodity produced food relative to microbial food safety. The U.S. meat industry freely shares food safety information and science to all industry members and collectively spends billions of dollars above and beyond what is required by the federal government. Consumers must be informed and accountable for safely preparing food for family and friends.
Bacteria that can cause serious foodborne illness such as Salmonella and E. coli O157:H7 can live in the digestive tract or on the hide of meat animals. It can be transferred to the carcass surface during slaughter. However, the interior of the muscle remains protected. During cooking, the surface of these intact cuts, such as a pork chop, will almost certainly reach a high enough temperature for a long enough time to terminate any pathogen present.
Chops and steaks from intact, whole muscles can safely be consumed after being cooked to medium rare at an internal temperature of 145°F and allowing three minutes of additional rest time before consumption. However, all ground pork, beef or lamb products should be cooked to 160°F and should be checked with a properly calibrated thermometer. Also, immunocompromised individuals, such as the very young, very old and expectant mothers, are suggested to heat all fully-cooked deli meats until steaming hot to terminate Listeria monocytogenes, a pathogen that can survive in the drains and cracks of food facilities and contaminate fully-cooked, ready-to-eat food during packaging.
Be truly “food-savvy” and you’ll be able to spend your nervous parenting energy on the first day of school, first driver’s license or first date.
Dr. Chad Carr is a contributor to Farm Journal's PORK's Meat Matters column. Chad grew up on a diversified livestock operation including Hampshire hogs and commercial beef cattle in middle Tennessee. He received his bachelor's and master’s degrees at Oklahoma State University and went on to obtain his Ph.D. at the University of Missouri. He is a meat Extension specialist at the University of Florida. Chad and his wife, Cathy, have two daughters. They like to travel, attend sporting events and show pigs.