Pink or No Pink from A Dash of Science.com

Pink or No Pink?

Every place has their own ideas about food. For example, I went to a burger restuarant, placed an order, and the waiter asked, “Pink or no pink?” Um, what in the world did he mean? He clarified, “Would you like your hamburger pattie pink on the inside?” Eww! If I had been in a small eatery I probably would have left. But I wasn’t! It was a national chain restaurant that had pretty high safety standards. Apparently around here a lot of people like their hamburger patties slightly raw and the restaurant accommodates them. Here is why “no pink” is the safer answer.

Microorganisms and Meat

Meat comes from the muscle of animals. It is generally agreed that the internal muscle of healthy animals are free from bacteria. But practically every other part of an animal has a lot of microorganisms, some of which are harmful to humans. The skin comes in contact with dirt, slobber, feces, and so much more. The gastrointestinal(digestive) tract had many mircobes and lymph nodes are another source. No matter how carefully slaughtering is done, it is almost impossible to avoid getting some microorganisms onto the meat. Hence the need to cook meats. Cooking destroys the microorganims. If you want to prevent food poisoning, cook meat as directed on the package or to the internal temperatures listed at foodsafety.gov.

Whole Cuts vs Ground Meats

Contamination is normally mild for large cuts of meat. Microorganims will be on the surface, but muscle is dense enough that the inside stays clean. So a person can normally eat a rare steak without any problems. Any microorganisms sitting on the surface of the meat are killed off when the outside of the steak is browned.

The more the meat is handled and broken down, the greater the contamination. For example, ground beef is from trimmings from various cuts of beef. Each cut of beef has the potential for being contaminated by coming into contact with other parts of the animal, a contaminated worker’s glove, a contaminated knife or a contaminated container. If even one cut is contaminated, it will contaminate the whole batch once it is sent to the grinder. That grinder will then contaminate any other meat until it is cleaned. Plus, ground meat has a lot of surface area. Microbes could be anywhere in the meat, not just on the outside of the pattie.

Meat Safety and Regulation

Since meat is easily contaminated, the food industry takes special precautions with it. Meat is a heavily regulated food. Any food processing plant that deals with a significant amount of meat is required by law to test meat for harmful microorganism like E. coli and Salmonella frequently. They take great pains to keep things as clean and safe as possible.

Fun Historical Fact

The U.S. began regulating meat because of a story. Upton Sinclair wrote The Jungle based on his experience working undercover at a Chicago meat plant in the early 1900’s. He wanted to highlight social inequality, harsh working and living conditions, and business corruption. Most readers focused on the disgusting decriptions of meat packing instead. This resulted in the Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906.

Take Home Message

food safety steps from fda.gov

Enjoy meat without getting food poisoning by following these basic steps.   1. Clean: use clean kitchen tools and clean work area often.   2. Separate: keep raw meat and other foods separate.    3. Cook: properly cook meat to the right temperature.   4. Chill: refridgerate leftovers.

And if ever given the option of pink burgers, choose “no pink”.

Extra Reading:

Images: Rob Owen-Wahl, FDA

Source: Modern Food Microbiology, 7th Ed, by James M. Jay, Martin J. Loessner, and David A. Golden

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