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According to U.S. Department of Agriculture Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS), perishable foods must be held at proper cooling temperatures for bacterial growth inhibition and cooked to internal temperatures high enough to kill harmful pathogens. Internal temperatures recommended to consumers by FSIS range from 145°F for whole muscle beef cuts (e.g. steaks) to 170°F for non-intact (e.g. ground beef) beef products. FSIS information states that most pathogens are destroyed between 140 and 160°F. While this information is publicly available, it may not be present on food packaging in a format that would lead consumers to use cooking procedures that achieve internal temperatures high enough to kill pathogens. A better understanding of the role that temperature plays in food safety, and further, the cooking methods required to achieve internal temperatures that kill pathogens is essential to the prevention of food-borne illnesses due to undercooked beef products.
Commercially available thermometers are the only accurate way to determine the internal temperature of cooked beef products. Several commercial thermometers provide an accurate reading within 2 to 4°F and are inexpensive and easy to use, but do consumers actually utilize them in the home environment? “Cooked thoroughly” is part of the Safe Handling Instructions placed by law on all raw beef products, but how many consumers know what this really means? For example, do consumers know the FSIS recommended guidelines for internal temperatures for cooking fresh beef are as follows: (1) medium rare, 145°F; (2) medium, 160°F; and (3) well done, 170°F? Furthermore, do consumers know to cook ground beef products to at least 160°F?
The primary questions addressed by this study were: (1) Is the consumer provided basic information to cook their products safely; and (2) When cooking instructions are provided, are they clear, concise and adequate to meet the FSIS safe temperature recommendations?
With the assistance of National Cattlemen’s Beef Association personnel, the following items were chosen for evaluation:
Products were purchased from a total of five retail grocery stores and two local meat markets. Retail grocery stores included three national chains and two statewide chains. Product brands were randomly assigned alphabetical designations based on the store from which the product was purchased. Product lots for each brand were either determined based on a manufacturer assigned lot number, or by the store sell-by date. In the event that more than one sell by date was not available, the product was purchased from a second store within the same chain. Seasoned ground beef for meatloaf was prepared using several brands of the fresh ground beef and three brands of meatloaf seasonings.
While all of the products tested contained “Safe Handling Instructions” to inform the consumer to “cook thoroughly,” only eight of 30 (27%) loin/top sirloin, eight of 60 (13%) ground beef, and none of the 15 (0%) raw beef sausage had cooking instructions. All of the frozen, ground beef patties had cooking instructions; however, they lacked detail on cooking times and temperature. Rarely did instructions reference the use of thermometers. For the most part, when provided, cooking instructions resulted in safe internal temperatures, but generally required interpretation by the consumer to achieve those temperatures.
Specific findings for each product type were as follows:
Whole-Muscle Loin/Top Sirloin
Eight of the 30 (27%) whole-muscle cuts had cooking instructions on the package, all from the same retail outlet (brand). The cooking instructions provided for this brand resulted in internal temperatures of ≥145°F. These instructions were applied to those brands without cooking instructions and also resulted in the attainment of target internal temperatures. Therefore, the instructions provided for this brand could be universally adapted for all whole-muscle loin and top sirloin steaks.
Fresh Ground Beef Patties
Eight of the 30 (27%) fresh ground beef patties had cooking instructions on the package, all from the same retail outlet (brand). The cooking instructions from this retail outlet (brand) were clear, concise and resulted in an internal temperature of ≥160°F; high enough to kill any pathogens. It was also noted that this retail chain provides information regarding E. coli 0157:H7, suggests the use of an instant-read meat thermometer and advises putting cooked beef on a clean plate.
Modified Atmosphere Packaged (MAP) Fresh Ground Beef Patties
None (0 of 15) of the MAP ground beef came with cooking instructions on the package. One brand referred the consumer to a Web Site for cooking instructions. However, due to the fact that many consumers would not notice this reference, do not have internet access or would not want to take the time to find and use this Web Site, it was not deemed an effective means of communicating cooking instructions.
Frozen Ground Beef Patties
While cooking instructions for frozen ground beef patties were included on all of the 30 products evaluated, they were generally vague, did not specify a cooking time range, and for one brand, required consumer interpretation of “fully cooked.” Only one set of instructions defined “done” as 160°F. The addition of cooking time ranges to the cooking instructions for these products would be suggested to provide clearer guidance to consumers as to when the product was “fully cooked,” and should specify a target internal temperature of 160°F.
Raw Seasoned Ground Beef for Meatloaf
To evaluate seasoned ground beef for meatloaf as a non-intact product for this study, pre-mixed ground beef seasonings were purchased based on the presence of cooking instructions. The ground beef varied by brand, package type and fat percentages so as to represent several types of ground beef that consumers might use for meatloaf. All meatloaves were cooked at 375°F for the designated times stated in the cooking instructions. Overall, the meatloaf cooking instructions needed to be modified to increase the cooking times by at least five (5) minutes so as to safeguard the consumer from undercooked meat.
Raw Beef Sausage
No large, retail grocery chains in San Antonio, Texas sell raw beef sausage. It was necessary to rely on local meat markets and one full-service butcher counter at a specialty grocery store for the purchase of the raw beef sausage. Therefore, it is not surprising that none of the beef sausage tested had cooking instructions. Nonetheless, all sausage products were pan-fried on a pan surface temperature of approximately 300°F. It was determined that the cooking time for raw beef sausage varied greatly from 10 to 22 minutes with a per brand average of almost 15 minutes to 21.5 minutes. Although the fat percent was not specified, it is possible that variations in fat content had an impact on total cook time. In addition, the sausage required at least three to four turns to ensure thorough cooking. Due to irregular shape it was determined that turning the product frequently was important to ensure that the desired internal temperature of 160°F was reached throughout the product. Any cooking instructions for raw beef sausage should include instructions to turn the product frequently and to use an instant-read meat thermometer to ensure that an internal temperature of 160°F has been reached.
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimates that there are 76 million cases of food-borne illness United States annually, with 14 million cases attributed to known pathogens. E. coli alone is estimated to account for 76,000 cases of food-borne illness and 76 deaths annually. Safe handling and proper cooking by consumers is the final defense against food-borne illness. As a result of this study, it was determined that all raw beef products should be sold with clear and concise cooking instructions, including time ranges and target temperatures that are effective for eliminating harmful pathogens.