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How safe is the meat you eat?

What you should know about the dangers of beef, pork, veal, lamb and other meat products and what you can do to purchase, prepare and store them safely.
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Mad cow disease, which has caused over 90 deaths overseas, has spurred new concerns in this country over the safety of the meat we eat. Although there have been no reports of infected cattle in this country, many Americans are worried about the safety of U.S. beef and beef products. Leslie Bonci, nutritionist with the American Dietetic Association and director of sports nutrition for the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center looks at the risk of mad cow disease in the U.S. and has advice on how to buy, store and prepare meat safely.

MAD COW DISEASE FIRST emerged in Britain in the mid-’80s and was spread to France, Germany, Portugal, Spain, Switzerland, Belgium, Denmark, Italy, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Liechtenstein and Ireland through infected animal feed. Livestock were fed bone-meal made from the ground-up carcasses of infected cattle.

To date, hundreds of thousands of cattle have been infected and millions have been slaughtered.

The first human cases linked to eating contaminated beef were diagnosed in Britain in 1996. A total of 92 individuals have died as a result (88 in Britain, three in France and one in Ireland).

Two recent outbreaks in Germany and France have brought mad cow disease back into the spotlight. Although there were recent reports of quarantined cattle in Texas, so far, the U.S. has been immune to mad cow disease thanks to government regulations and procedures.

Since 1990, the USDA has had a ban on the importation of animals and animal products from England, and since 1997 from all of Europe.

The FDA enforces a ban against processing and using solid parts from mad cow-susceptible animals and using them to fortify the feed of other mad cow-susceptible animals.

The USDA has an active surveillance program. They are looking for the disease and testing the highest risk animals.

Measures are being taken in meat processing plants, both by the industry and by the government, to try to reduce the chance that the parts of animals that we know could be dangerous are kept out of the food supply.

Consumers should rest assured that precautions are being taken before the meat even reaches the supermarket. Special care should obviously be taken when traveling overseas. The bad news, however, is that unlike with other food-borne illnesses you can’t avoid mad cow through proper handling or cooking — if a beef product is infected, it is infected. But if you are cautious you can avoid illnesses caused by other bacteria such as E.coli, salmonella, clostridium and staphylococcus.

So, what can we do about safe beef, pork, veal, lamb and other meat products?


Consumers should be most concerned and careful about buying ground meat. Because of the extra processing involved, ground meats are at more of a risk for contamination than other cuts.

Tips for buying meat: First and foremost, it is safest to buy meats that are raised here in the U.S., where there are measures taken at every level to ensure safe feed, safe processing and safe handling. As with poultry, look for the “safe food handling” label. With the label you can be certain the meat has been processed safely and it will give you tips for handling and cooking properly at home.

Consumers should look for a package that is tightly wrapped. A bloody piece of meat is OK and you don’t need to be too worried about coloring. It does tend to change color a little from exposure so don’t worry if it doesn’t look uniform or even. Lastly, pick it up last, with your poultry and bag it separately.


Handle meats with clean, dry hands. This is an obvious one, but it’s always worth repeating.

Store them in the coldest part of the refrigerator. If there is a meat bin in your refrigerator go ahead and use it.

You can keep meat in its original packaging. If it is leaking at all, either put it on a plate or re-package it.

Use meats within 2-5 days. Ground meats, sausage and organ meats like liver should be tossed after two days. Everything else will keep for 3-5. Something like a canned ham though can last for 6-9 months refrigerated.

If you are freezing meat, use freezer-safe wrap. The original packaging will not give it enough protection.

Never defrost meats on the counter — always in the fridge or in the microwave. It’s OK to re-freeze a piece of meat after it’s been thawed but not if you thawed it in the microwave.


First and foremost — consumers really should not eat steak tartar or carpacio. Always cook all your meat products.

If you are marinating a piece of meat, there are two things to keep in mind: Never marinate in a metallic pan. The acid in the marinade can interfere with the metal which can then contaminate the meat.

Always marinate in the refrigerator. If you want to use marinade on the cooking or cooked meat, make sure you have some set aside in the fridge that never touched the raw stuff.

Don’t unneccessarily interrupt the cooking process. In other words, try not to keep opening the oven door just to check on the meat. Obviously you will sometimes want to baste it or flip it, but meats will always cook safer and more evenly if you leave them alone.

Always, always, always cook to the proper temperature. It’s OK to eat rare meat (except pork of course) as long as it has reached its proper internal temperature. Those temperatures should be 160 degrees for ground meats; 145 degrees for beef, veal and lamb; and 160 degrees for pork.

As far as leftovers go, consumers should know that cooked meats should not be left out for more than two hours — remember the danger zone for bacteria is 40-140 degrees — so get that meat back in the fridge if it starts to cool. Reheat everything to it’s proper temperature and re-heat any meat-based gravies to a boil.