In what qualifies as ground-shifting news in the food safety world, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Tuesday lopped 15 degrees off its recommended temperature for safely cooking whole cuts of pork, aligning it with guidelines already in place for beef, veal and lamb.
Heating steak, roast and chops to an internal temperature of 145° F, so long as the meat sits briefly before it is eaten, is enough to ensure its safety, the USDA said.
Meat temperature should be measured with a food thermometer (a tip-sensitive, instant-read digital thermometer is best) inserted in the thickest part of the meat, according to the government’s announcement. After reaching the target temp, the meat should then rest for three minutes before being carved or served to be “microbiologically safe and at its best quality.”
The cooking-temp change does not apply to ground meats — ground beef, veal, lamb, or pork — because pathogens can be mixed throughout ground meat. USDA says ground meats should be heated to a least 160° F but do not require a rest time. The safe cooking temperature for all poultry, including ground chicken and turkey, remains 165° F.
“With a single temperature for all whole cuts of meat and uniform 3 minute stand time, we believe it will be much easier for consumers to remember and result in safer food preparation,” said Under Secretary Elisabeth Hagen in the USDA’s news release. “Now there will only be 3 numbers to remember: 145 for whole meats, 160 for ground meats and 165 for all poultry.”
Reaction to the new recommendation was predictable; many think public health precautions are paternalistic. A tweet from Tom Colicchio, host of Top Chef, said “USDA confirms what chefs have been saying for years Pink Pork is Safe.” A Grub Street NY headline: “USDA: They’re officially granting everyone permission to cook pork to medium.” Foodie @SeanKelly of Alabama, declared, “Sanity!”
But this wasn’t the first time the feds have revised recommended cooking temps downward. In 2006, USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) lowered the recommended temperature for poultry from 180° F to 165° F. At that time, USDA said chicken and turkey should be cooked more thoroughly than other meats because Salmonella is the most heat-resistant pathogen of concern in raw poultry.
This latest revision for pork comes again on the advice of the FSIS, which says cooking cuts of pork to 145° F with a three minute rest is as safe as cooking them to 160° F, the previously recommended temperature, with no rest time.
The agency said the new cooking suggestions reflect the standards it uses for cooked meat products in federally inspected meat plants, which rely on rest time to achieve adequate pathogen reduction. Rest time is key, the USDA explained, because for three minutes after meat is removed from a heat source, its temperature remains constant or continues to rise, which helps to destroy harmful bacteria.
Pork producers have been asking for the lower cooking standard since 2008, based in part on husbandry conditions that reduce the risk of exposure to pathogens. Trichinosis, a common zoonotic disease worldwide, has almost disappeared in connection with pork in the U.S. because so many pigs are now raised indoors. Most recent domestic cases of the disease have been associated with eating undercooked wild meat.
Although barnyard pigs can be exposed to environmental parasites like Trichinella or Toxoplasma, meat from locally sourced pigs raised outside should not be risky when cooked at the new, lower recommended temperature, according to James McKean, Extension Veterinarian and Associate Director of the Iowa Pork Industry Center in Ames. In an email, McKean said temperatures in the 135° to 138° F should be sufficient to kill bacteria and parasites.
In reporting the USDA’s announcement, the alliterative attraction of “pink,” “pig” and “pork” seemed just too juicy for many journalists, even though meat color is not a reliable indicator of safety and the USDA emphasized that point.
“A bit of pink in pork appears to be OK after all,” was the Associated Press lead on the news about the temperature reduction. “Finally, the government agrees that pig should be pink,” wrote the Chicago Tribune. And a New York Times blog post began: “Pink is back.”
That pink signifies undercooked meat remains one of the biggest myths in food safety. Some meat that is pink inside may be safe and some meat that is thoroughly browned may not be. “Only by using a food thermometer can consumers determine if meat has reached a sufficient temperature to destroy pathogens of public health concern,” the USDA once again tried to explain.