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How does meat become contaminated?
“How long do you cook meat for?” is the wrong question to ask when you’re cooking. Instead, ask yourself “what’s the internal temperature of this meat?” According to the USDA, the only way to properly cook raw meat and avoid eating food contaminated with dangerous bacteria is to check its internal temperature.
Even though the U.S. food supply is largely safe, meats and poultry can still become contaminated in a variety of situations. In fact, the CDC estimates that 76 million Americans get sick from bacteria in food every year. The cleanest meat processing plants can still produce contaminated food because harmful bacteria are present in the intestines of healthy animals. If meat or poultry comes in contact with just a small amount of intestinal content during processing, contamination can occur.
But it doesn’t take human interaction to cause contamination. Sometimes food contamination can happen naturally. Eggs, for example, can be infected with Salmonella if bacteria are present in a hen’s ovaries. Before an egg’s shell is ever formed, Salmonella may already be present. With so many ways for meat and poultry to become contaminated with bacteria, it’s important to know proper internal meat temperature guidelines.
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Safe Internal Temperatures For Cooking Meat
According to the USDA, time and appearance are inaccurate measures of meat’s doneness. A hamburger may be completely brown in the middle yet still contain harmful bacteria if its internal temperature isn’t hot enough. Research shows that one out of every four hamburgers will turn brown in the middle before it reaches a safe internal temperature of 160 degrees.
Likewise, different types and cuts of meat require different cooking times. And because oven and grill temperatures vary, there’s no way to create a standard table of cooking times for different meats. So just because a recipe gives a cooking time for a meat dish, that doesn’t mean the finished meal will necessarily be safe to eat—unless you check its temperature.
Instead of relying on meat’s appearance or its cooking time, the USDA recommends consumers use instant-read thermometers to monitor the internal temperature of their meat, poultry, and egg dishes. To check if meat is done, insert a thermometer into the thickest part of the meat. Avoid touching the thermometer to bones, gristle, or fat as these parts will give inaccurate readings.
Compare your temperature reading to the USDA’s Safe Minimum Internal Temperature Guidelines:
- Beef, veal, lamb, steaks, and roast should be cooked to 145 degrees Fahrenheit
- Ground beef, lamb, and veal should be cooked to 160 degrees Fahrenheit
- Turkey, chicken, and duck—whether whole, ground, or in pieces—should reach 165 degrees Fahrenheit
- Eggs should have an internal temperature of 160 degrees Fahrenheit
- Fish should be cooked to 145 degrees Fahrenheit
- Pork should reach 160 degrees Fahrenheit
Cooking your meats to these temperatures ensure your meal will be safe and free from harmful bacteria.
Remember that meat will continue to cook after you take it out of the oven. So you may not necessarily have to leave your roast in the oven until the thermometer reads 145 degrees. In fact, letting it reach the correct temperature in the oven may lead to dry, overcooked meat.