Before you lick your chops over visions of rare hamburgers and chicken cooked until just pink, consider this: Even when the new, more stringent regulations for inspecting meat and poultry go into effect, there will still be plenty of harmful bacteria to go around.
New Department of Agriculture regulations, announced recently by President Clinton, will require 75 percent of the meat and poultry production in this country to be under the new inspection system within the next 18 months. But the new techniques, which will rely on microbial testing instead of the current poke-and-sniff method, will not eliminate the high incidence of salmonella and campylobacter, two of the major human pathogens; instead, it will reduce their levels.The new plan will still permit 49.9 percent of the ground turkey sold to contain some salmonella, as will 44.6 percent of ground chicken and 20 percent of whole chickens. Only 7.5 percent of ground beef and up to 2.7 percent of the other beef cuts will be allowed to contain the bacteria. These criteria reflect the current national average in meat and poultry plants, according to data collected by the Agriculture Department, and it is being used as the initial baseline standard.
"What the data show is that these ground poultry products are allowed very high contamination levels compared to ground beef, based on what the industry is currently doing," said Caroline Smith De Waal of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a Washington-based advocacy group that helped to fight for the new regulations.
"The key to whether this rule succeeds is whether USDA takes steps to reduce contamination levels."
Plants that are already performing better than the industry average don't have to do anything to improve their performance, but Michael R. Taylor, the acting undersecretary for food safety, said: "USDA will pursue substantial reductions in these standards, even before they go into effect. If we had data that supported stricter standards, we'd set them."
The new system, whose worth is still unproven because it has never been used for any length of time on raw food, is called Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points, or Haccp (pronounced HAS-sip.) Plants must identify critical points in the production process where contamination is likely to occur and implement plans to prevent the contamination. In December, a Haccp system took effect for seafood.
The Agriculture Department will test for salmonella in meat and poultry, and the industry will be required to test for the presence of generic E. coli, bacteria that is found when there has been fecal contamination. The permissible levels for E. coli are also based on what the industry has already achieved.
There will be no tolerances for E. coli 0157:H7, the bacteria found in beef that was responsible for the deaths of four children in 1993.
"Up until now the responsibility for the safety of meat and poultry has been on consumers," said Carol Tucker Foreman, an assistant secretary of agriculture in the Carter administration who lobbied to change the inspection process. "Now, industry will be sharing the responsibility, but the new rules are never going to be a license to abuse meat and poultry."
So, the consumer rules that applied five years ago to the safe handling of meat and poultry will still apply five years from now. They include:
- Wash hands, utensils and work surfaces that touch raw meat and poultry before and after handling the food, using hot soapy water.
- Do not allow raw meat or chicken to sit at room temperature for more than 30 minutes; refrigerate.
- To prevent problems, cook food thoroughly.
- Even if a dish is cooked, it may become contaminated if it comes in contact with infected raw food. Raw foods should be kept separate from cooked foods.
- Do not defrost meat or poultry at room temperature. Defrost in the refrigerator, in a microwave oven, under cold running water or in a cold-water bath, with water changed every 30 minutes or less.
- After meat or poultry has thawed, rinse it well under cold water.
- Stuffing can be made ahead and refrigerated, but do not stuff a bird until just before roasting time.
- Remove the stuffing from a bird as soon as it is taken from the oven.
- Never roast a bird partly one day and finish it the next.
- As soon as the meal is over, it's best to put the leftovers in the refrigerator. However, the bird can stay out another hour or two at the most if people want to pick from it, but they should use a knife and fork, not their fingers.
- Cook both beef and pork to an internal temperature of at least 160 degrees, so that it is slightly pink. The fleshy parts of poultry should reach 180 degrees.
- Freezing pork at 5 degrees or lower for 20 days will kill trichinae.
Microwave ovens have their own set of precautions. Because they cook unevenly, they shouldn't be used for stuffed chicken or turkey - the moist conditions of the stuffing are excellent for salmonella growth, and the situation becomes riskier because of the potential for uneven cooking.
Because microwave ovens cook so fast, microbes can also survive on the surface of the food. To counteract this problem, cover the cooking dish with another dish of glass or ceramic, not plastic. The steam that accumulates will heat the surface.
Foods cooked in a microwave oven should stand covered after cooking. The heat concentrated in the interior radiates out, cooking the exterior and equalizing the temperature. It is important to follow the standing time in recipes.