Don't Wash Your Meat
Can't you just wash off meat like one rinses off fruits and vegetables? No. In fact, the new federal dietary guidelines specifically recommend that "meat and poultry should not be washed or rinsed." The USDA explains: "Bacteria in raw meat and poultry juices can be spread to other foods, utensils, and surfaces." Juices? Animals are not fruits. They don't have juice. In chickens, for example, the "juice" is a fecal soup of bloody serum absorbed in the scalding and cooling tanks in the slaughter house. Further, the infection is actually inside these animals.
Millions of chickens are drowned alive in the scalding tanks (the federal Humane Slaughter Act exempts all birds), which may introduce the pathogens into their lungs. However new research from the USDA's chief scientific research agency suggests that the primary source of lung contamination with bacteria like Campylobacter is inhaled manure during production (where up to tens of thousands of chickens are overcrowded into broiler sheds) or during transport.
The June 2005 issue of the Tufts University Health and Nutrition Letter notes: "Your own hands, where they grasped the meat while washing it, could become just as bacteria-laden as the surface of the food... The best bet is to leave meat or poultry untouched until you start cooking it" (what are you supposed to do--levitate it into the oven?) New research, though, suggests that even this precaution may not be enough.
In March 2005, researchers published a study in which they swabbed the external surface of prepackaged raw meat in the grocery stores for fecal contamination. And did they ever find it. Even though most of the packages looked clean on the outside, they found Salmonella, Campylobacter and multidrug-resistant E. coli on the outer surface of packages of meat. Just picking up a package of meat in the store could put one at risk.
Poultry beat out the competition for the most contamination, followed by lamb, pork and beef. One swab of a single Q-tip picked up over 10,000 live E. Coli bacteria. As few as 10 bacteria of the hemorrhagic type (E. coli 0157:H7) can lead to a potentially fatal infection. The researchers conclude, "The external packaging of raw meats is a vehicle for potential cross-contamination by Campylobacter, Salmonella, and E. coli in retail premises and consumers' homes."
OK, fine, but what if you handled the meat like they do in the lab--first wiping the package off with rubbing alcohol using sterile gloves, then cutting it open with a disposable blade before lifting a piece out with sterile forceps into the oven--once it's cooked to the proper temperature it's safe, right? Unfortunately, the internal temperature required to cook the fecal contamination dead (160 degrees F) is the same temperatures which produces carcinogenic compounds called heterocyclic amines.