Look around your local grocery store – what do you see? Shoppers with full carts heading to the checkout? Consumers reading meat labels and checking expiration dates?
As we make food purchases, each of us has a specific set of values that guides our decisions. Though it’s natural to assume that the price of groceries influences us the most, that assumption doesn’t necessarily hold true. According to a recent nationwide online survey by Kansas State University, we consider freshness and safety of food first, then price, and last environmental impact, animal welfare, origin and convenience.
These findings are interesting, especially since researchers often assume that consumers take safety for granted – if it comes from a retail outlet, they presume shoppers think it’s safe. However, the truth is that consumers generally don’t have that presumed trust in food safety. In fact, according to the Kansas State survey, safety was the biggest influencing factor when shoppers examined perishable animal products like milk, ground beef and chicken breast.
It’s no surprise that consumers are weary to trust commercial meat makers. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimates that there are approximately 76 million cases of food-borne illness in the US each year, with 325,000 hospitalizations – most from pathogens found in meat and poultry. So does this mean we should forgo meat for good?
Not necessarily. According to former US Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman, America’s meat and poultry is safer than ever before. In fact, he claims that it’s the safest thing we eat because it’s inspected, whereas seafood, fresh fruit and fresh vegetables “are not really inspected.” However, food-borne disease remains an important public health concern. To ensure that you’re purchasing, preparing and storing meat in a safe and healthy way, here are a few recommendations:
When buying meat, look for the Safe Food Handling label on packages. This label means the meat has undergone safe processing. In addition, make sure the meat is tightly wrapped and cold to the touch. Gather your other groceries first and pick up the meat last, packaging it separate from your other items.
It’s best to store meat in the coldest part of the refrigerator or in your refrigerator’s meat bin. Raw meat like chicken breast can be safely stored for three to four days, while ground meat and sausage should only be refrigerated for two. As for the freezer, ground meat can be stored for three to four months, while fresh beef, veal, lamb and pork can last 4 to 12 months.
When preparing meat, wash your hands for 20 seconds before, during and after cooking. Never cut raw meat and fresh produce in the same area and certainly not on the same cutting board. If you’re marinating meat before cooking, do so in the fridge. Keep things clean, watch for splatters and disinfect everything when you’re finished!
When cooking, we all know that undercooked meat can lead to problems. Unfortunately, color isn’t a reliable indicator of properly cooked meat. In fact, meat may appear brown before it’s done, especially for whole cuts of meat. On the other hand, fully-cooked meat can still appear pink. The best way to properly cook meat is with a meat thermometer. Not only will this save you from undercooking your chicken, pork and beef, but it will also prevent you from overcooking meat – no more chewy steak for safety’s sake!