Should I Wash Meat Before I Cook It?

Short answer: Your attempt to wash away germs can backfire in a big way.

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May 18 2018, 5:00pm

The Picture Pantry/ Lisovskaya Natalia

It’s warm out, there’s beer in the cooler, and you’re gearing up to throw some steaks on the grill. Before seasoning up that London Broil, you give the cut of meat a cool bath in the sink. But one of your friends sees you and cringes hard. “I’m just trying to get all the germs off of it,” you say. “It’s safer this way.” Droplets of pink water fly off the steak, into the sink, and onto your countertop. But it doesn’t faze you. You plop the raw meat onto a plate and head outside, never once looking at the surfaces splashed in raw-beef water. Did this ritual rinse actually make the meat safer to eat? Or have you just created a day spa for puke- and poop-inducing germs?

What’s the protocol for prepping meat before you cook it?

Your raw meat should go from the package to the grill and miss the sink completely. According to the Center for Disease Control, you shouldn’t wash raw meat or poultry before cooking it since it can spread bacteria to surfaces (like the kitchen countertop), utensils, and other foods in the nearby area. If you’re wondering if the CDC is just paranoid, know that the USDA agrees.

This cross-contamination can lead to the potential for foodborne illnesses, says Daniel Green, assistant director of clinical microbiology at New York-Presbyterian/Columbia University Medical Center. Poultry can carry salmonella and beef can have E. coli, and when these droplets of meat juice get on your counter, you’re creating a breeding ground for potential food poisoning. Symptoms include abdominal pain, fever, and vomiting and can take 24 to 48 hours to incubate, he adds.

So I'm not actually washing away germs when I rinse my meat?

The bacteria on the surface of the meat is organized tightly together, so washing it virtually does nothing to help. “Washing is also not a very efficient way to remove bacteria from meat. A lot of the bacteria can be tightly adhered to the meat, so even if you wash it, you’re not effectively removing any of them,” Green says. “If anything, you’re just dispersing them to other surfaces.”

When you wash your meat, you also form droplets that can be found at distances from where the meat was originally washed, so effectively you’re spreading the bacteria around your sink, on your counter, which other foods certainly promotes the aforementioned cross-contamination, Green says.

Washing your meat before cooking puts you—and anyone else at the party who touches contaminated surfaces and then their face—at risk for these foodborne illnesses. This bacteria comes from bacteria deep in meat that’s transferred from the butcher’s knife and hands onto the surface when it’s being prepared for sale. Someone that’s not a meat inspector generally cannot usually tell when a piece of meat is infected with something like E. coli just by looking at it or smelling it, which is why the cooking/killing of bacteria part can decrease or eliminate the risk.

Uh, ok, but I've been rinsing meat all this time and I've been fine. How sick can I really get from rinsing meat?

Well, think about it like this: Even if you’re totally healthy, you’re increasing your risk of having some pretty aggressive food poisoning by rinsing meat and potentially getting its juices on other surfaces and foods on your counter. If you have a compromised immune system and are exposed to this bacteria, it’s possible to contract a life-threatening infection. While you’re more likely to get diarrhea and abdominal symptoms from a foodborne illness, a more dangerous infection is possible: The CDC estimates that every years, 48 million people become ill from foodborne illness, 128,000 are hospitalized and 3,000 die.

“Most people who have healthy immune systems, it tends to be a self-limited gastroenteritis [an intestinal infection],” Green says. “[But for those] taking certain immunosuppressant medications or are more susceptible to having a life-threatening infection.” So lay off the beef baths and opt for cooking the meat at the recommended temperatures depending on the type of meat you’re preparing.

Does this pertain to all meat?

The CDC recommends 145 degrees for whole (non-ground) beef, veal, lamb, fresh pork, ham, and even fin fish. After your meat is done cooking, you should let it rest for three minutes before cutting into it. Poultry, like ground chicken and ground turkey, are ready to eat at 165 degrees.

While recommendations are out there online about washing fish, most of them are culinary rather than safety-based. The most effective way of eliminating certain fish-related illnesses and parasites is to cook it at the right temperature. "Maybe if you're out on a boat or something and you're cleaning and gutting the fish, it makes sense to wash it out there, but again in your kitchen, the fish has already been cleaned if you're dealing with a filet,” Green says. The FDA recommends thoroughly cleaning chopping boards and all other surfaces when dealing with fish, but not washing the fish itself. One important thing to note about detecting a something off: Uncooked spoiled seafood can have an ammonia odor that becomes stronger after cooking. If you smell that type of odor at all, in raw or cooked seafood, don’t eat it.

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