KNOXVILLE, Tenn.– Proper cooking of meat is the best way to prevent illnesses associated with E coli bacteria, a University of Tennessee food scientist said Friday.
Dr. Curtis Melton, a food science professor with the UT Agriculture Extension Service, said the U.S. Department of Agriculture is making a mistake in focusing its prevention efforts on E. coli testing at meat plants.
“The end product testing that’s going on now cannot eliminate all the bacteria,” Melton said. “That’s what the U.S.D.A. does not seem to understand.”
Melton said part of the problem with beef testing is in the sampling.
“There is no way to pull a small sample out of 5,000 pounds of beef and get a representative sample,” Melton said. “Most of the meat might be fine, but a small part might be tainted.”
Melton said he was surprised that Hudson Foods in Columbus, Neb., is facing possible federal indictment. E. coli contamination at the plant led to the largest beef recall ever last August.
When cattle arrive at a meat processing plant, the animals are contaminated with bacteria picked up from their environment, Melton said.
“It’s on their hides and in their hair and when they go into the plant, it goes with them,” Melton said. “It’s impossible to think that plant employees can touch the hides and touch the carcass and not have some of that bacteria on them.”
The risk of contamination is a constant, Melton says. The only sure preventive is cooking beef to a temperature of 150-160 degrees.
Roasts, steaks and other cuts of meat are not a high E- coli risk.
“Muscle meat is almost sterile,” Melton said. “If there is E. coli, it is on the outside of the meat where it is easily destroyed by cooking.”
Ground beef poses a higher threat, unless properly cooked, because E. coli may become mixed throughout the meat in the grinding process, Melton said.
Frozen beef patties are a special concern.
“I would never throw a frozen patty into a skillet or onto a grill,” Melton said. “It may look done on the outside, but the center may still be cool. Always thaw the meat before cooking.”
Contact: Dr. Curtis Melton (423-974-7334)