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What You’ve Been Told About Safe Meat Temperatures is Wrong!

Rules are important, and you should follow them. I’m not advocating that you engage in risky cooking behaviors. However, knowing what lies behind the rules of safe meat temperatures can make you a better cook. So, what are these rules to begin with?

Safe Meat Temperature

You’ve heard it over and over. Potentially unsafe foods need to be cooked to specific target temperatures based on the risk they pose. These are primarily confined to any and all animal-based food products. Meat, fish, milk (pre-pasteurized), eggs, honey, etc. And yes, I know that raw versions of some of these items have become popular, but those violate the basic rules and are to be consumed only at your own risk. 

Beef, Pork, Lamb, Veal (Whole Cuts)145°F (63°C)
Ground Meat, Injected, or Mechanically Tenderized165°F (74°C)
Poultry (Whole or Cut up)165°F (74°C)
Safe Meat Temperatures

But there are other rules too:

And this doesn’t include the rules for storage and holding temperatures or all the cleaning processes.

The important rules for the average home cook are about the final cooking temperature. In a professional kitchen, there are a host of other safety rules and regulations. These are designed to keep people safe from foodborne illnesses and to be easy to understand and follow.

Two Kinds of Meat

While the charts all talk about different kinds of meat (i.e., beef, pork, poultry, lamb, etc.), the truth is that the safe temperature for meat is based on whole cuts versus others. The other is ground, mechanically tenderized, injected, or small items like poultry. 

With whole cuts like chops or roasts, the contaminant exposure is generally limited to the surface of the meat. This is the area of the cut brought to the highest temperature during the cooking process. Ground meats or poultry may have bacteria introduced into the meat itself. Here we need to bring the internal temperature up to safe temperatures. There are only two types of meat, and it has nothing to do with where it comes from. 

But What Does Science Say?

The Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) is responsible for many things, including research into food safety issues. They regularly publish reports showing the science of food safety. 

It’s Temperature AND Time that matters

Even the most resistant strain of bacteria stops reproducing at temperatures of 131°F. And that strain starts dying at a single degree above this. So why do we cook chicken to 165°F? 

Food-born bacteria die off instantly at the times on the chart above, but it begins dying at temperatures well below this. When you hear that 165°F is the minimum internal cooking temperature for poultry, it means 165°F for zero seconds. You could cook a skinless, boneless chicken breast to an internal temperature of 136°F if you hold it at that temperature for 64 minutes.(source)

The Danger Zone is Smaller Than That

According to FSIS, the real danger zone for bacterial growth is between 50° and 130°. The bacteria we worry about grows best at our normal body temperature or between 95° and 100°F. Of course, it still grows at a temperature well below and above this range, but it grows fastest, around 97°F. At this temperature, bacterial colonies can double every 20 minutes. 

Time-Temperature Combinations for Chicken Products to Achieve Lethality
Time-Temperature Combinations for Chicken Products to Achieve Lethality

The growth rate drops as the temperature moves farther away from the mid-point of this range. It doesn’t stop, but it slows dramatically. This also matches up with the fact that foods cooked to temperatures close to 135°F for longer periods and still be safe. 

So Why Haven’t You Been Taught This? 

Because it’s simple. Food safety guidelines are based on best practices and do not guarantee that food will be completely free of contamination. The USDA considers killing 99.999% of bacteria to be sufficient, which it is. The calculations are complicated; logarithmically complicated. The math has to balance time, temperature, fat content, and humidity.

Humidity needs to be high with indirect cooking methods, not counting boiling or other methods that would put the food in direct contact with liquids. Also, the higher the fat content, the longer the time needed to reach doneness at lower temperatures. I said it was complicated.

Finding Temperature is Hard

All of this is based on your ability to get an accurate read of the internal temperature of the food (meat) you are cooking. Yes, I know, you have a $100 instant-read thermometer that is accurate to .001 degrees. Great! Doesn’t matter. Food safety temperatures are based on finding the lowest temperature in any cut of meat. To get that number, you have to either poke a lot of holes or get very lucky. Either way, the information you can’t completely trust is the number on your thermometer. 

Testing Steak Temperature with Thermoworks
Testing Steak Temperature with Thermoworks

This is the real reason why safety temperatures are higher than the studies suggest. Temperatures are more accurately in a lab setting. The people at FSIS and USDA know that most home cooks will simply not be as precise. 

Food Safety is Actually Important

Health departments and government agencies are very proactive about food safety. And they know that the best way to achieve their goals is to keep it simple. Estimates suggest that one in twenty-four packages of chicken holds salmonella. And that’s for all chicken. Some tests suggest that one-third of ground chicken packages can contain salmonella.(source) 

Playing fast and loose with food safety is simply not a good idea. Odds are, you have encountered contaminated meat in the past week alone. The reason you didn’t get sick was because of these rules.

So Why Mention It?

Understanding why the rules are the way they are and the science behind them helps more experienced cooks navigate their way to the dish they want. And for some cooking methods like low and slow smoking or sous vide, you need to understand where it is important to cook faster and where you can cook slower. Also, that medium rare steak you like so much is cooked to a temperature of 130°F or inside the danger zone. Don’t even ask about a Blue Steak.

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