A couple of weeks ago, I was having dinner with my parents. My dad was making chicken and asked me what temperature he needed to cook it to. After all, working for Food Safety News does qualify me as the food-safety expert of the family.
“165 degrees F,” I told him.
“What if it’s barely pink?” he countered, goading me.
“I don’t care what it looks like,” I said. “Use the thermometer!”
I try not to be this pedantic about food safety around anyone who doesn’t have to love me unconditionally (it can be annoying, I know), but one of the most important tools for food safety is the thermometer.
Two of the four consumer steps toward food safety — Clean, Separate, Cook, and Chill — rely on temperature control.
When food contaminated with pathogens such as Salmonella, E. coli or Listeria reaches consumers’ kitchens, cooking to certain minimum temperatures can kill the bugs. Keeping leftovers below 40 degrees F hinders bacteria growth.
The safe minimum internal temperatures vary by food. All poultry, casseroles and leftovers should be heated to 165 degrees F. Ground meats and egg dishes need to be at least 160 degrees F. Fresh beef, pork, veal, lamb and ham should reach 145 degrees F and then rest for at least three minutes. Fish should also be cooked to 145 degrees F.
“Using thermometers is the only way to really know that your food is thoroughly cooked — that it has reached a temperature to destroy any harmful bacteria that could possibly be there — and thermometer use is also important in the refrigerator in chilling,” says Christine Bruhn, retired director of the Center for Consumer Research at the University of California.
But few consumers actually use a thermometer to check the doneness of meat, poultry and seafood, or to check the temperature in their refrigerators.
“They might do it on a roast, they might do it on whole chicken,” Bruhn says. “They don’t do it on the smaller chicken parts, they seldom do it on burgers, and even on steaks they are relying on visual indicators. They’re not really verifying the temperature on the inside.”
How many use thermometers for cooking?
Self-reported use of thermometers has increased from 33 percent in 1998 to 53 percent in 2010. This seems like great progress, but Bruhn warns that people may only use thermometers on large hunks of meat or poultry, such as a pot roast or the Thanksgiving turkey, and not necessarily in everyday cooking. People might also say they use thermometers even though they don’t just because they know they’re supposed to.
According to a survey conducted by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, 46 percent of participants said they never use a thermometer when cooking chicken parts and 66 percent said they never use one when cooking or grilling hamburgers.
Last year, while studying various aspects of chicken preparation in consumer homes, Bruhn found that only 5 percent of participants used a thermometer without prompting from the researchers, and only about a third agreed to do so when prompted.
From there, researchers found that 40 percent of the chicken in the study was undercooked, especially when it was grilled or barbecued.
According to another study published last month and conducted by RTI International, Tennessee State University and Kansas State University, 62 percent of consumers own a food thermometer, but less than 10 percent of them actually use it to check for doneness in all poultry.
Addressing barriers to thermometer use in cooking
Bruhn says that the main barriers to thermometer use are the idea that using a thermometer implies inexperience and the thought that cooking meat and poultry to the recommended minimum temperatures degrades taste.
Most home cooks use visual indicators such as color, firmness, clear juices or shrinkage, but these aren’t accurate indicators of doneness. For example, a chicken breast could turn white, but still be less than 165 degrees F.
Many recipes refer to these visual cues or to cooking time. Bruhn says that time is only reliable if there is consistency across everybody’s frying pan or oven and the food always starts out at the same temperature.
To get more consumers to rely on thermometers, anyone writing recipes for a book, magazine, or blog should include the temperature recommendations, Bruhn says.
“That could so simply be added to a recipe” and would mean consumers wouldn’t have to keep all the correct temperatures in their head, she adds.
Another way to show people that using thermometers isn’t an amateur move is for “role models” to use them. Bruhn’s hope is to reach celebrity chefs and their producers to stress the impact they could have by “modeling correct and safe behavior for the public.”
As for the thought that your chicken or burger will be too dry if you cook it to the recommended temperatures, many food-safety experts argue otherwise.
For chicken, “We found that at 165, it’s still moist and juicy,” Bruhn says. “If you want it to be dry, bring it up to 180 or something like that.”
As for ground beef, the U.S. Department of Agriculture says that burgers can still be juicy when cooked to 160 degrees F, regardless of color.
If you still have your heart set on that rare or medium-rare burger, go ahead and order it, but just know that it’s a risk, Bruhn says.
“That’s one of the dilemmas I face as an educator: seeing people doing things that I would not do. But if they consciously choose to take that risk, then I need to seal my lips,” she says. “If they don’t know any better, then I can find a gentle way to let them know it’s a high-risk action.”
How many use thermometers for chilling?
In that FDA survey, 55 percent of consumers said their refrigerator didn’t have a built-in thermometer. Only 21 percent of respondents said they put a thermometer in the fridge to check its temperature.
People tend to trust that the refrigerator is going to be cold enough when relying on its factory settings. This might be OK, Bruhn said, but things can change over time.
In her studies, Bruhn says she’s seen around 13 percent of consumers’ refrigerators with temperatures above 45 degrees F (the recommendation is 40).
Bruhn says she would love to see fridge manufacturers “be more assertive” in including thermometers in their products. Some of the high-end ones do, but not all, and she wonders about those who can’t afford one of those.
“Food-safety standards should be made available to all income groups,” Bruhn says.
And, in her chicken study, only a quarter of participants knew the correct temperature for their fridges. When adding thermometers to refrigerators, Bruhn suggests that manufacturers include a scale to indicate whether the appliance is in the safe range.
“We don’t all need to have numbers bouncing around our head, but we need to know where we are,” she says.© Food Safety News