FAQs About the Retail Meat Case #2: Basic Meats 101

 

 

Lyndall Harned

 

   Two weeks ago, we talked about ground beef and hamburger. Well, there are a lot more meat in the case than just ground beef. So this week we will deal with some of these other meat and cuts, handling, safety, etc. Some of this may be repetitive from last week, as some of that information applies to all meats, but most will be new.

   The average American will eat over 200 lbs. of meat annually. About 50% of meals are eaten at home. We will spend about 13% of our total income on food. Today, we have the most money to spend on the widest array of food in our nation’s history. Meat remains the centerpiece of most Americans plates at meal time.

   But, many still have questions about the meat we eat. About the quality, food safety, cooking, etc. The following answers many of the most frequently asked questions about what we find in our local retail meat cases.

Stay safe from food poisoning

   Bacteria, molds and fungus are everywhere in our environment. On animals and yes, even on us. Most of these are harmless, but some, given the right circumstances and high numbers, can be harmful. These bad microorganisms are referred to as pathogens.

   Even though U.S. meat, and our food supply in general, is the safest in the world, sometimes contamination can occur. We read or hear about these in the news and about the recalls that occur.

   One general ‘rule’ to remember is that if we cook food to 160 degrees or above, that will kill the vast majority of pathogens. Remember, most of our cooking surfaces are heated to above 300 degrees which will definitely kill pathogenic bacteria.

   Most pathogens are on the surface of meat, which is where contamination would occur. Since meat is cooked from the surface inward, a high temperature like 300 degrees definitely kills them.

   Except with ground meat. Just due to the way it is made by grinding, mixes the outside and the inside. This means that if the outside was contaminated, then it is now spread throughout the entire quantity of ground meat. This could be ground beef, ground pork or sausage, ground lamb, etc.

   Due to this fact, hamburger should always be cooked well done or until the center of the burger or sausage is at least 160 degrees. This is also why we can eat less cooked steaks.

   We can eat whole muscle cuts, such as steaks, chops, slices and roasts, and cook them to a lesser temperature and still be safe to eat as rare steak is generally in the 140 degrees internal temperature range and medium-rare in the 150 degrees range.

   Additionally, never re-use a cutting board to cut vegetables or anything else on if you have used it to cut up meat or use a knife to cut meat and then slice vegetables. At least until they have been thoroughly washed and cleaned with hot soapy water.

   Also remember to refrigerate food within 2 hours of serving and keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold.

Thawing Frozen Meat

   Everyone has done it, maybe grew up in a house where it was done. I sure was. That is to thaw meat, you just lay it out on the counter top or in the sink and leave it until it is soft and thawed. It may be a fast way to thaw it, but it sure is not a safe way.

   Freezing meat does not kill bacteria. So, you may get meat that has surface bacteria. While it will be killed by cooking, the likelihood of cross contamination is much, much greater.

   Simply plan meals ahead and put the frozen meat in the fridge to thaw overnight. This also helps maintain the quality of the meat. Rapid thawing can cause a greater amount of water loss, which makes the meat tougher and drier.

   If you buy meat in a grocery store, remember if you are going to freeze it, the plastic from the store was not meant to be used in freezing. Always re-wrap in a zip lock type bag and remove as much air as possible.

Blood in the Package?

   Most people think that the red liquid commonly found in packaged meat is blood. It is not. That red sticky liquid is called purge (I personally call it meat juice) consists mostly of water and myoglobin, which I talked about last week. It is the protein that binds oxygen and is responsible for the red color of meat.

   Meat is composed of approximately, 70% water, 8% fat, 20% protein and 2% ash (vitamins and minerals). When a whole muscle piece of meat is cut, it begins to lose water. If you have noticed, most retail groceries now put a piece of absorbent soaker pad under the meat to absorb this fluid.

Sodium Phosphate?

   Huh, wait, what? Why does it say my chicken breast or pork chop has been ‘enhanced’ with it?

   As stated in the last part, meat is about 70% water when raw. Most Americans tend to overcook both chicken and pork out of fear of possible pathogen contamination. Overcooking causes the meat to be dry and tough. Then, most times, we blame the meat for being poor quality. Sound familiar to anyone?

   To combat this problem, some meat processors inject into the meat at a rate of 10 to 15%, of the original weight of the cut, a solution of sodium phosphate and water. This puts more water into the meat and will help it be juicy and less tough when overcooked.

Natural or Organic?

   What is ‘natural’ and what is ‘organic’ and what are the differences?

   The USDA defines ‘natural’ as relates to food, which includes meat, as products that do not contain any artificial ingredients or are minimally processed, such as smoked, roasted ground or frozen. Technically, all fresh meat fits into this category.

   Although the USDA does not have a strict definition of natural, it is generally recognized that natural meats are from animals that have not been fed antibiotics or given synthetic growth promotants.

   Conventionally raised animals sometimes are given subtherapeutic levels of antibiotics or growth promotants to help them grow faster and get to the market sooner. This helps them to have less overhead and produce less expensive meat products.

   Organic meats are from animals that are raised by strict organic guidelines and practices. Organic farmers must keep very meticulous records and periodically undergo third party inspections to make sure they are doing what they say they are.

   Organic livestock is fed 100% organic grains and forages and cannot be given synthetic growth promotants or vaccines. Their pastures also cannot be fertilized with sewage sludge or synthetic fertilizers. And there are many, many more guidelines they must follow to become certified organic and to maintain that certification.

   Organic meats are considered specialty products and demand higher prices at retail to recover the additional costs it takes to raise animals this way.

 

   Most of the information I have shared the last two weeks come from publications written by Dr. Gregg Rentfrow, UK Extension Meat Specialist, and Georgiana Anderson and Ryan Cox of the UK Meat Sciences Department.


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