The government needs to assume more responsibility for protecting the health of meat and poultry consumers, according to a report released last week by the National Academy of Sciences. To do so, current meat inspection procedures should be modernized and improved to detect pathogens and pesticide residues, said the report, commissioned by the U.S. Department of Agriculture two years ago.
Unfortunately, you have little control over the use of pesticides in cattle feed. Nor can you prevent salmonella or other microorganisms from entering the food chain at the farm, feedlot, slaughterhouse or processing plant. What you can do, through proper cooking and handling methods, is reduce the risk of these microorganisms spreading or multiplying to dangerous levels.
These pathogens, which are neither seen nor smelled, are rarely introduced in the home or by food service establishments, says the NAS report; they are in the animal.
"If they weren't there to begin with, you, the consumer, won't be able to put them there," said Thomas Grumbly of the Health Effects Institute and a member of the NAS study panel. (The NAS report recommends that the health of animals be traced and monitored beginning on the farm and feedlot. Fewer than 30 percent of red meat animals can be traced back to the farm of origin, said Robert H. Wasserman, chairman of the NAS panel.)
According to Nancy Robinson, spokeswoman for the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service, it would be "very difficult and costly" to totally eliminate pathogens such as salmonella or campylobacter, although the agency now has a task force to learn how to reduce their incidence. In fact, meat that contains salmonella is not condemned, according to Robinson. It can be sold as such, without a warning label, so long as the agency provides educational information to consumers on how to kill it, Robinson said.
The educational information includes the USDA's "Safe Food Book," which contains all kinds of information about meat and poultry storage and handling (including the commonly asked questions about how long food should be kept), and a meat-and-poultry hotline, which coincidentally or not was changed to a toll-free number on Wednesday, the day after the NAS report was issued.
To get a free copy of the "Safe Food Book," write: Meat and Poultry Hotline, USDA -- FSIS. Room 1165. South Building. Washington D.C. 20250. Locally, the hotline can be called by dialing 447-3333. Outside of the metropolitan area, the toll-free number is 800-535-4555.
In the meantime, here's some information, provided by "The Safe Food Book," Georgia Neruda, coordinator of the USDA's meat and poultry hotline and Stanley Green, a USDA microbiologist. Refrigeration and Storage
*Do not keep food unrefrigerated for more than two hours.
*Your refrigerator should be kept at 40 degrees or lower. Bacteria will grow between 40 and 140 degrees; rapid growth and some toxin-production will occur between 60 and 125 degrees.
*Do not cool food on the kitchen counter. Put it into shallow containers and refrigerate immediately. Cooking and Reheating
*Wash hands, food-contact surfaces and utensils between contact with raw meat and poultry and the cooked dish.
*Most food poisoning bacteria are killed at cooking temperatures between 165 and 212 degrees.
*Never heat leftovers in a crockpot. They won't get hot enough fast enough. When using conventional methods, cover leftovers and thoroughly reheat them.
*Don't worry about the brown areas that may appear on the flesh of chicken near bones, after it is cooked. Chickens are slaughtered nowadays when they are young and their bones are soft and porous. When cooked, the blood pigment from the bone marrow may seep through the bone to the meat, causing a discoloration but no health problem. Freezing
*Never use freezing as a means of food safety; it will prevent pathogens from growing, but it won't kill all of the ones that may already be present.
*Any kind of meat and poultry can be frozen; in fact it may be refrozen two or three times, so long as you have thawed it properly. (The product may undergo quality damage, however.) Proper thawing means placing the food in the refrigerator overnight or putting the frozen package in a watertight plastic bag under cold water, changing the water often. Do not defrost foods by placing them on the counter to thaw at room temperature.
*A fully stocked freezer should keep food frozen for about two days, in the case that your freezer fails. A half-full freezer should keep food frozen for about a day. Meat and poultry that still contain ice crystals may be safely refrozen.