The recent food safety issues covered by the national media of a popular fast food chain, reminded me of my days in the meat science lab at North Dakota State, where I learned the basics of food safety. The meat science lab is not as scary as it sounds… we didn’t make anything in petri dishes, but conducted research on how to produce the best steak! It was very similar to a butcher shop, however in the meat lab, scientists and students research various factors that contribute to producing the best meat product possible for consumers.
In the meat science lab researchers routinely collect data on the tenderness of meat. Quantitative data is gathered by measuring the shear force of the meat, which is an indication of how tough or tender a cooked piece of meat will be to the consumer. Meat with a lower shear force value is considered more tender and therefore more desirable to consumers. This particular research has led to production innovations that have increased the overall quality of meat.
Data is also collected at different points of interest throughout the carcass. Meat qualities measured on the carcass are directly affected by the nutrition of that animal prior to harvest. Understanding animal nutrition is vital since it has a direct impact on animal growth. Think of it terms of a human’s eating habits: if we eat mostly candy bars versus a well-balanced diet, our body composition will be altered. Among the carcass data collected on a harvested animal, a quality grade is assigned based on the amount of intermuscular fat, or marbling, within the muscle. Marbling is important since it impacts the tenderness and flavor of meat.
My experience in the lab was not the only time I learned lessons in food safety and quality. As part of my position with the university, I assisted with an ag extension program that taught consumers meat basics, from cuts of meat to best cooking practices. The most important principle we taught in the program was food safety. I’ve included the most important principle regarding food safety below.
I’ll lead with my most important piece of advice: A thermometer is food safety’s best friend. The temperature of the meat is the key to both safety and quality. If you are eating in town, the restaurant has a legal responsibility to reach minimum safety temperatures for the meat you order. If you’re cooking meat for yourself and your family, I can’t over emphasize the importance of purchasing a meat thermometer! I can hear the grumblings already. Yeah, yeah, I know all you meat jockeys out there know how to cook a great steak. Bear with me though while I describe the justification. I am not strongly encouraging you to buy a meat thermometer because I don’t think you can cook. I am suggesting you buy one from a food safety standpoint. Here’s why. Each type of meat (beef, pork, chicken, turkey, fish) and each category within that type of meat (different whole muscle cuts like steak or ground product) have different temperatures thresholds, which when reached, ensure any bacteria are killed. Ideally, the consumer doesn’t need to worry about bacteria in their food, but in reality, bacteria can be present. It’s the responsibility of the cook to make sure safe temperature thresholds are met.
Do yourself a favor: get a meat thermometer and a meat chart that defines safe temperature thresholds. A good meat chart can be found here. Now, the adage “go big or go home” does not apply here. If the final cook temperature is 145°F, cooking your steak to 155°F does not mean it’s better. It only means you’re more likely to have a poor eating experience because the steak was overcooked, and no one wants that. Make sure the temperature thresholds are met but not unnecessarily exceeded. I want everyone to have an amazing eating experience every time you sit down for a nice steak dinner.
For beef specifically, there are two especially important temperatures to remember. For whole muscle cuts like steaks and roasts, you want the internal temperature to be 145°, but if you are cooking ground product, like hamburger, you want the internal temperature to be 160°. To get a proper reading, insert the probe through the side of the steak, not down through the top. This method will give you the most accurate internal temperature.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this food safety tip. Continue following the Credible Beef Group to learn more food safety facts and tips on how to prepare amazing steaks at home!