COLLEGE STATION — Grandma’s secret recipe meat loaf has been in the oven for an hour and a half, at 300 degrees Fahrenheit. Garlic, onion and tomato waft through the kitchen. Mmm, looks done. It should be ready for the table — but is it safe enough to eat?
Maybe not. The United States Department of Agriculture recently announced that color is no longer a factor when determining if ground meats have been cooked long enough to be eaten safely.
New evidence shows that harmful bacteria like E.coli can remain active in ground meat — even after it appears to be well done. At other times, meat may prematurely brown. Hamburger, and all other ground meats like venison, chicken and turkey, must reach a temperature of 160 degrees Fahrenheit in order to be safe. The USDA recommends that a meat thermometer be used to ensure proper temperature.
“A meat thermometer is the most reliable way to reduce the risk of foodborne illness,” said Thomas J. Billy, administrator for the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), said. “The color of meat is no longer considered a reliable indicator of ground beef safety.”
Dr. Gary Acuff, associate professor of food science as Texas A&M University, is a food microbiologist. While using a thermometer may be fine for adults, he said, parents should continue to teach their children to not eat ground meat that shows pink.
“Nobody should want their kids eating pink ground meat of any kind. Children need to know a black and white answer about what is safe and what is not,” Acuff said.
Acuff has completed several research projects wherein he tried to measure the temperature of a hamburger patty with a digital thermometer.
“It’s an extremely difficult thing to do. We spent weeks and months trying to standardize our procedure,” he said. “For the vast majority of cases, brown meat is safe meat.”
According to Dr. Peggy Van Laanen, associate professor and Extension nutrition specialist at Texas A&M, ground meats are more exposed to bacteria than whole cuts of meat.
Grinding the meat exposes a large amount of the meat’s surface area to potential bacterial contamination from various sources in the processing plant.
“Therefore, there is more of a risk of having bacteria spread throughout the whole product rather than an intact cut of meat that may only have bacteria on the surface,” Van Laanen said.
Van Laanen said the public may be unsure about using meat thermometers.
“Many consumers have not had the opportunity or have not taken the opportunity to use meat thermometers to check the internal temperature of the foods that they cook,” she said. “We still recommend that consumers cook meats thoroughly until they are brown, particularly hamburger, and that if a meat thermometer is an option, that’s a good way to go.”
TIPS FOR THERMOMETER USE: 1. Use an “instant-read” thermometer to check patty temperatures. They are designed to be used toward the end of cooking time and register a temperature in about 15 seconds. 2. Check the stem of the instant-read thermometer for an indentation that shows how deep it must penetrate the meat to get an accurate reading. Most digital thermometers will read the temperature in a small area of the tip. Dial tips must penetrate about two inches of the food. 3. The thermometer should penetrate the thickest part of the food. 4. If a meat patty is not thick enough to check from the top, insert the thermometer in sideways. 5. To check the thermometer calibration, place the stem in a cup of boiling water. If correct, it will read 212 degrees Fahrenheit. Most thermometers have a calibration nut under the dial that can be adjusted. 6. Wash the thermometer after each use.