Safety of meat is not determined by production practices

Meat that originates from organic, grass fed or pasture raised production systems does not mean it has less bacteria.

Some recent television promotion of Rachael Ray’s new burger cookbook contained innacuracies about the safety of meat. Rachael’s response to a question about if it was safe to consume a burger with a red center was that it was safe to eat as long as the beef is “organic or grass fed.” The truth is, color is not an indicator of doneness and it does not matter how the animal was raised – organic, natural, conventional, feedlot, free-range, etc. Bacteria such as E. coli have been found in animals from all types of production practices. Ground meat needs to be cooked to 160 degrees F and all poultry including ground poultry needs to be cooked to 165 degrees F. The only way to know if a burger is safe to eat is to use a meat thermometer and make sure the internal portion (geometric center) of the burger reaches 160 degrees F.

Because all types of animals can harbor bacteria, the potential for the bacteria to be contaminated on the surface of the meat exists. When meat is ground, any potential surface contamination gets mixed throughout the product. Thus, the inside of the burger or ground product needs to be thoroughly cooked. This is in contrast to intact steaks or roasts where any surface contamination remains on the surface of the meat. The surface temperature reaches temperatures high enough to kill any bacteria present even if the steak is cooked to medium rare (145 degrees F). It doesn’t matter if the meat was processed at a small or large plant, there is potential to have contamination at all scales of production.

Other recent research highlights the potential for consumers to contract toxoplasmosis from undercooked organic or free-range meat. Toxoplasmosis results from Toxoplasma gondii, a parasite that an estimated 60 million people in the U.S. may be infected with presently. The parasite can be contracted from eating undercooked and contaminated meat—most often in pork, lamb and venison. Cook all poultry (whole cuts and ground) to at least 165 degrees F. For other meats that are whole cuts cook to at least 145 degrees F (measured in the center of the thickest part of the meat) and if ground to at least 160 degrees F. Most infected individuals with a good immune system do not experience the flu-like symptoms and may not even be aware they have it. Toxoplasmosis is a particular concern for pregnant women as it can be congenitally transmitted (mother to unborn child) and cause nervous system diseases and eye problems in unborn children.

The bottom line is that it is extremely important to properly cook meat and ensure that the meat is done by using a meat thermometer. Clean the area in the kitchen where raw meat was prepared and surfaces it contacted. Thoroughly wash fruits and vegetables and do not cross contaminate preparation of those items with raw meat.