• Wednesday, December 21, 2011

    Merry Christmas and Travel Safely

    This week’s blog post comes from a Meat Counter Mom with a heavy heart. My good friend, Dr. Chris Raines was killed in a car wreck this weekend. Chris and I were friends and roomies in graduate school. Chris sent me my first-ever text message. It was about an apple-cinnamon bacon project we were going to try. Although Chris was younger than me, I looked up to him in the digital world. He was the innovator. He was tweeting before I knew that it wasn’t something that birds did. He started a meat blog long before I ever considered it. And, when I decided to enter the twenty-first century and start a blog and a Twitter, it was Chris that I consulted (via text message). It was his idea to make my blog a ‘Mommy’ blog.
    He was silly and goofy and a great guy to be around. He was incredibly smart, but he could talk to anyone. He was really concerned that people were well-informed. Teaching and educating were his passions. My last correspondence (a text) with him was about helping students (his at Penn State and mine at Arkansas) prepare for an academic competition.
     I will miss him so.
    This is a pic of Chris, me and our other roommate, Julie (she’s a veterinarian, now).
    But, my blogs are not really supposed to be about me and my issues. My blogs are supposed to be about information that other moms need to keep their families safe and healthy. I just wanted to share about Chris and let everyone know what a great guy he was and that without him there would be no Mom at the Meat Counter.

    On to the info…
    Everyone seems to travel during the holiday season. If you are not headed to a grand parent’s (or multiple grandparent’s houses) for the holiday, you may be headed to the beach or the ski lodge in the next few weeks. Our family has traveled to Denver in January the past few years to stand in the cold and look at cattle.
    Everyone is traveling. Money is tight and if you have a freezer full of meat, you hate to travel and have to buy meat at your destination.
    But, how do you get it there safely?
    First, is it frozen? Frozen meat is the easiest to travel with. If you have some steaks or roasts in the fridge that you want to travel with, freeze them. Freezing for a few days won’t hurt their eating quality. Frozen meat has further to go before it reaches the DANGER ZONE.  
    If you are going to travel more than an hour or so, you’ll want to pack your meat in a cooler. Make sure you wash the inside and outside of your cooler before your fill it with meat. You also want to save packing the cooler as one of your last chores before you head out the door. That will minimize the time the meat is in it.
    You want to fill the cooler as full as possible, so use as small a cooler as you can. Excess air in the cooler will cause the meat to thaw faster. If you can’t fill your cooler up with meat, put a towel or blanket inside the cooler to insulate the air. You’ll want to put the meat on the bottom and the towel on the top. Air will escape into and out of the cooler through the lid, so you want to insulate it from the top.
    For trips shorter than 5 or 6 hours, frozen meat will probably stay frozen in a cooler, especially in cool, winter weather.  If you are going to be traveling for longer periods, you can use those frozen, blue ice packs. Pack them next to the edge of the cooler and on top of the meat. Think about where the warmth will be coming from, the top and the sides.  Don’t put ice on frozen meat, the ice may actually be warmer than the meat, and, because it will melt into water, ice will thaw the meat faster than air would.
    Some people may consider dry ice. Dry ice is frozen carbon dioxide. You can use it to keep meat frozen, but it can be dangerous if you keep it in the car with you or if it touches your skin. Follow the link and read about the safety of dry ice before you decide to use it.
    If your meat is not frozen, you can still travel with it. Here is where I would suggest using ice. It would be best to package any meat you are traveling with in water-tight packages, like zip-lock bags. If the meat is already in a vacuum package, it will be fine. Put the meat on the bottom of the cooler and the ice on top of it. Meat freezes at a lower temperature than water (28° F), so the ice will not freeze the meat. You can use the ice as an indicator of the cooler temperature. As long as the ice is solid (you know, still ice) the meat should be cold enough. If the ice thaws, drain out the water and buy more ice.
    If you packed fresh, uncooked meat, the ice could have harmful bacteria on it. Don’t use it for drinks or anything else. Just throw it out.
    After you’ve packed your cooler, you may consider putting a blanket over it, especially around the openings. That should help insulate any warm air that may try to seep in it. If it’s cold outside and the car will be warm, put the cooler in the trunk or back so it will stay colder. Also, try to minimize how many times you open it. Every time you open the cooler, all the cold air will escape and will be replaced by warmer air.
    I hope everyone enjoys this Holiday Season and has a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. I hope you get to enjoy your family and that you eat well. But, please… Travel Safely.

    Tuesday, December 13, 2011

    Bring it home safely

    In the days leading up to Thanksgiving, I was doing some grocery shopping, and I saw some things in other shoppers’ carts that really concerned me. No, it wasn’t their dirty, screaming children. There were food safety issues all over the store.
    One particular cart contained fresh, uncooked pork chops with a bag of Clementine oranges sitting directly on top of it. I considered (for a second or two) snapping a secret picture with my cell phone, but decided that might create a scene. Then, I considered recreating the incident and taking pictures, but that would have been so wasteful.
    The store is responsible for keeping meat products in a clean environment and at safe temperatures, but as soon as you select a package and place it in your cart, it’s all on you.  Only you can control how safely that package is handled from the time you select it until it is served to your family.
    To get things started, the folks at www.foodsafety.gov have a blog about keeping food safe while shopping called Start at the Store. It also contains a video. They talk about inspecting cans to make sure they are not dented and fruit to make sure it is not bruised.
    A friend of mine sent me this picture. Se was extra careful about
    keeping her fresh meat away from the rest of her groceries.
    When you are shopping for groceries, you should always wait to buy milk, meat and eggs until last. They are perishable and you want to minimize the time they spend outside of refrigeration. You want to observe the “2 hour rule.” This simply states that refrigerated food should not be stored at room temperature for more than 2 hours. When it’s hot outside (above 90°F), you should have your refrigerated foods home in the fridge in an hour.
    Also, when you are selecting that perfect cut, try to handle the packages by touching only the packaging. Don’t poke on the meat with your fingers. Even though they are wrapped in plastic, it is not a perfect barrier, so when you handle the meat, the germs from your hands could still transfer to the meat.
    You have every right to examine every package in the case to find that perfect one, but when you find it, put the rest of the packages back where you found them. Don’t leave them stacked up on each other. Those coolers can only keep the meat cold if it is below a certain point within them. Most stores only stack their packages three deep so the coolers can do their job efficiently.
    At most grocery stores today, there are plastic bags close to the meat counter for you to place the packages in. They will be just like the ones you’ll see in the produce section. You should use these to keep juices from the meat from dripping onto other foods in your cart.
    Remember that sandwich meats and hot dogs are already cooked. They need be refrigerated, but you don’t want to get raw meat juices on them. Don’t put them in the bag with the raw meat.
    When you put your raw meat packages in your shopping cart, keep it away from other food items. Do not set it on top of other foods. Do not set other foods on it. Remember those Clementine oranges? They were potentially contaminated. You will cook your meat to kill any bacteria that is on it, but fresh fruits and vegetables may not be cooked before they are eaten.
    But, don’t oranges have a thick peel? Even if they have a thick peel, the surface could carry bacteria that could be transferred to your hands when you peel it and then to the interior of the food when you eat it! Just keep it separated!
    After you go through the check-out line, make sure that raw meat packages are bagged separately from other foods. I think store employees are being trained in food safety and many of them will bag your raw meat items separately without you even asking.
    If you like to use those environmentally-friendly, reusable shopping bags, use a disposable one for your raw meat products. The juices from your meat could drip onto the reusable bag and allow bacteria to grow in it between shopping trips. Then, it would contaminate your food on the next trip to the store.
    If you are going to make it home and get your meat products in the fridge in less than two hours, everything should be ok without a cooler or ice pack. If it’s really hot outside (greater than 90°F), you should have it home in one hour and put your meat products in the front of the car in the air-conditioning rather than in the trunk.  If you can’t make it in an hour, you should put your meat, milk, eggs and other perishable items on ice.
    Once you get home, get your perishable meats, milk and eggs unloaded and in the fridge.  Double check all your shopping bags for everything that needs to go in the fridge.
    Enjoy this crazy Christmas season. I love it! I would also love some comments or questions for topics for my next blog. Thanks!

    Monday, November 21, 2011

    The Big Turkey Day!

    Did you know that according to records, the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag people shared beef and (undisclosed) fowl at the first Thanksgiving? No one is sure why the large bird has become so closely associated with our National Day of Thanksgiving. I know that my turkey-farmer neighbors appreciate it.
    According to the National Turkey Federation website, 88% of American’s eat turkey on Thanksgiving. It is estimated that American’s consumed 46 million turkeys last Thanksgiving. In fact, Benjamin Franklin wrote to his daughter that he preferred the turkey over the eagle for the Official National Bird. Hmmm… Maybe Virginia Tech is on to something.
    There is A LOT of information on the internet about cooking your meal on Thanksgiving Day. Some good websites include www.foodsafety.org, the USDA, www.eatturkey.com, www.butterball.com, the Honeysuckle White Company, and the Food Network. Be careful if you just Google “Turkey”, unless of course you are interested in a trip to Istanbul. You can also search the twitter for #turkey, #turkeytweet, #Thanksgiving, #trkytips, or #turkeychat. I think you could read about Thanksgiving food safety and holiday meal preparation on the internet from now until… Valentine’s Day… really. There is no way I could cover it all in one post, so I’m trying to hit the high points and give you lots of resources if you have more questions.
    So, you are planning to cook a huge meal for friends and family this Thursday? Hopefully you’ve already cleaned out your fridge and bought all your ingredients.
    You want to make sure that your family is healthy for the long holiday weekend. You don’t want food poisoning during your big shopping trip on Friday. A couple of months ago, I wrote a Food Safety Post and talked about the 4 simple steps for food preparation and storage. Clean, Separate, Cook and Chill. Be sure to keep those in mind all day.


    First, wash your hands with soap and warm water before you get started. Make all your helpers wash their hands. (On a side note, if anyone has the sniffles, send them to watch football. Letting them help you cook is an ideal way to spread their germs to everyone else.) Be sure to wash your hands after you’ve handled any raw meat or eggs.
    Use a soap and warm water to wash down all the counter tops and cutting boards. Be sure to wash all your utensils with soap and warm water after you’ve used them. If there are lots of helpers in the kitchen, be sure to wash utensils that have been used on raw meat or eggs right away. You don’t want anyone to accidently reuse them on something that’s already been cooked.

    The bird.

    Thawing. The best way to thaw a turkey is in the fridge, but remember it will take about 24 hours per 4-5 pounds of turkey to thaw in the fridge. That means a 16 to 20 pound bird will take 4 or 5 days. Here is a link to estimated thawing times. If you really need to thaw you turkey in a few hours, you can use cold water. You will still need about 30 minutes per pound and it is suggested that you place the turkey in a plastic bag and change out the water every 30 minutes. When I was a kid, my mom and dad had a microwave that was big enough to thaw a turkey, but I haven’t seen one that large in a long time. Still, if you really want to and it will fit, you can use a microwave to thaw your turkey… chuckle.
    Keep all raw meat in the fridge until you are ready to cook it. It should be in something to catch any juices and separated from other foods.

    Marinating. Some people like to marinate or inject their turkey. You should let it set for a little while after you marinate it, before you cook it. Let it set in the fridge. You want to keep it cold. I found a video from USDA food safety about brining (marinating) a turkey for Thanksgiving.
    You can put your turkey directly into the roasting pan to get it ready to cook, usually on a small rack. Remember, everything in the roasting pan will be roasted, so it will be safe when it comes out of the oven.

    Stuffing. I am not a fan of stuffing in general (don’t tell my dad). Most food safety experts suggest that you cook your stuffing separate from your turkey. But, if you really want to stuff the bird, you need to stuff it immediately before you cook it and check that the middle of the stuffing reaches 165°F before you take it out of the oven. The uncooked juices from the Turkey will mix into the stuffing and you want to make sure that everything gets hot enough to kill any bacteria. USDA also offers a whole fact sheet on stuffing.

    Roasting. The traditional method for cooking a turkey is roasting it in the oven. The USDA has also provided a fact sheet for safely preparing your turkey called … wait for it… Let’s Talk Turkey. They are so funny at that government agency. Basically, make sure the oven it set above 325°F, allow enough time for cooking based on the size of your turkey and your own oven. The table below is from a turkey roasting page on the www.eatturkey.com website and gives time estimations for cooking a thawed turkey.

    WeightUnstuffed TurkeyStuffed Turkey
    8 to 12 pounds
    2 3/4 to 3 hours
    3 to 3 1/2 hours
    12 to 14 pounds
    3 to 3 3/4 hours
    3 1/2 to 4 hours
    14 to 18 pounds
    3 3/4 to 4 1/4 hours
    4 to 4 1/4 hours
    18 to 20 pounds
    4 1/4 to 4 1/2 hours
    4 1/4 to 4 3/4 hours
    20 to 24 pounds
    4 1/2 to 5 hours
    4 3/4 to 5 1/4 hours
    24 to 30 pounds
    5 to 5 1/4 hours
    5 1/4 to 6 1/4 hours

    You can cook a frozen turkey in the oven, but it will take at least 50% longer.

    Most importantly, USE A MEAT THERMOMETER to make sure the thickest part of breast has reached 165°F! I know that most turkeys today come with a pop-up thermometer to let you know when it’s done. Those were developed in the 60’s. Use a thermometer. I know there are lots of questions about thermometers; the Eat Turkey website has also provided a thermometer guideline page.

    Frying. I wish I knew how many people deep fry their turkeys now. I’ve tried it (eaten it, not actually fried it), and it was quite tasty (then again, it was made by my cousin Pauline, and everything she makes is tasty). Anyway, lots of people like fried turkey, including William Shatner, of Star Trek fame. I would definitely recommend watching his video about turkey frying safety. The New York Daily News wrote an article about Shatner’s turkey frying video, and included the following tips concerning safety when deep frying a turkey:

    1. Avoid spillover: Don’t overfill the pot (with oil).
    2. Turn off flame when lowering the turkey into the oil.
    3. Fry outside, away from the house.
    4. Thaw the turkey before frying.
    5. Keep a grease-fire approved fire extinguisher nearby.

    Even when you are frying your turkey. USE A MEAT THERMOMETER! Make sure the breast reaches 165°F. Never fry a stuffed turkey. Be safe and you will live long and prosper.

    The leftovers. Just like it takes a long time to cook a turkey, it takes a long time to chill turkey leftovers. Cut up the leftover turkey and place it in shallow containers in the fridge. That will allow the turkey to chill faster and keep it out of the Danger Zone. You want to get it in the fridge within 2 hours of your meal.

    What about ham? I really think ham is neglected on Thanksgiving. Our family usually has a choice of turkey or ham. The USDA has a nice fact sheet about hams. Most people buy smoked, cooked hams, so essentially all you are doing is reheating it for your meal. Cooked hams should be heated to 140°F, warm enough to get it out of the Danger Zone. The package will say whether or not it’s cooked. Some hams are smoked and uncooked, labeled ‘cook-before-eating’ and some people choose to buy fresh, uncooked hams. For those, you want to heat it to an internal temperature of 145°F and allow it to rest for 3 minutes. Just like turkey, you want to cut up your leftovers and get them in the fridge in shallow containers within 2 hours.

    Everything else. In my last post, I talked about keeping foods separate by getting different colored cutting boards for raw meat and ‘ready-to-eat’ food that won’t be cooked (fresh fruit and vegetables). Make sure everyone in the kitchen knows which cutting boards are for what. If you have a large kitchen, it might even be good to prepare raw food in one area and ready-to-eat food in another.

    I also worry about gravies on Thanksgiving. It should be treated like a meat product. Make sure it gets hot (165°F) before it’s served and get it in the fridge within two hours of the meal.

    Don’t forget, you should throw out all your Thanksgiving leftovers on Sunday night.

    I hope everyone has a safe and Happy Thanksgiving!

    Please feel free to comment on my blog or the Mom at the Meat Counter Facebook Page if you have any questions or comments. I will keep an eye on it all weekend.

    Remember the Food Safety Hotline will be staffed from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. Eastern Time on Thanksgiving Day. Call them toll-free at 1-888-674-6854. Or check out their Ask Karen page or app.

    Thursday, November 10, 2011

    Getting the kitchen ready for the holidays

    Now that we’ve switched back to the ancient, standard time, and we all get home after dark; we seem to be stuck in the house for endless hours every night. (I really don’t see much point in switching back to standard time every year; except that it makes us all appreciate day-light savings time when it comes around again in the spring.)

    So, what to do with all those extra hours trapped in your house with your family?

    One great idea is to clean out the fridge! Yay!

    With all the ‘hustle and bustle’ of the holiday season, it’s easy for your fridge to get packed in just a few short, crazy weeks. So, the week or two before Thanksgiving (right after we fall back) is the best time to clean out the fridge and get it ready.

    I always try to clean out my fridge on the night before the trash man comes, because room-temperature, out-of-date fridge contents can get pretty stinky sitting in the trash can. Check the dates (sell-by, freeze-by, or use-by dates) on all your deli meats, hot dogs, and cheeses. This is also a good chance to double-check your mayonnaise, salad dressings, and salsa, pretty much anything that’s perishable.

    I know that the dates are sometimes hard to find, so I took some pictures to give examples of where dates may be found. I can’t tell you when or where I took these pictures (for my own protection).

    Dates may be found on the back of the package or the bottom of the label. Sometimes they are on the lids of jars or the bottoms of cans. Sometimes they are not on the label at all and are printed directly on the plastic of the jar, bottle, or package.

    Mustard, barbeque sauce, frozen foods, pickled things. These all have a ‘best-by’ date. Notice that some of my examples are out-of date and some have dates that go almost two years into the future. These dates are mostly to help insure the quality of the product. If you eat them after this date, they may not taste great, but they won’t make you sick. Now, remember that this is dependent on how the food has been handled. If it has been allowed to reach room temperature after it was opened, it may not be safe, regardless of the date.
    The next set of pictures represents use-by dates, and I thought they were some good examples of where to look for dates. Again, they probably won’t make you sick if you consume them after the date expires, but it probably won’t taste very good at all. Cool whip and margarine are usually used in other dishes, so you want to make sure that their ingredients are in the best condition. If you use them after the use-by date, your final dish may not be as good. The oil in ketchup will separate out as it gets older. The artificial sweeteners in diet drinks lose their sweet flavor after a few months, so that Diet Coke may taste like bitter, fizzy water. Salsa and picante sauce may fall in this category, too. I have found that they are prone to mold growth, even in the fridge. Ick….
    In this last group of pictures, some of the dates say “best-by” and some just have a printed date. These pictures are meats or foods largely made with milk and egg products which are good places for bacteria to grow. So, for meats, mayonnaise, yogurt, cheese sauce, and those types of products, I would stick with the dates. Throw out anything that is past the date on the package. I would put ranch dressing in this category, too.

    Ok… back to cleaning out the fridge.

    Toss out any left-over’s older than 3-days old. I am guilty of keeping leftovers until they would make good science projects, but we never eat them. We just make funny faces as they go in the trash.

    Remember that you are trying to make more room. Sometimes I find two opened packages of the same food and condense them. Empty the shelves all the way to the back. Check the date on everything in the door.

    This is a good chance to wash the refrigerator shelves and the drawers with hot, soapy water. You might also want to put in a fresh box of baking soda.

    Are you planning to thaw some large meat items in your fridge on Turkey day? (You know… a turkey.) Get a big space cleaned out so you can put it on the bottom shelf. Make sure you have a tray or plate big enough to put it in to catch the juices while it’s thawing. Also, double check that the shelf above is not too low and that your turkey won’t be touching it. Most refrigerators today have adjustable shelves, so you can make the space above the bottom shelf as big as you need it.

    You will need to allow 1 day of thawing for every 5 lbs of frozen turkey. So, be ready to share your fridge with a large bird for three or four days before Thanksgiving.
    Remember that you may have to store large casserole dishes in your fridge for a while, so make sure there is room for those too. Also, they are not very tall, so you can adjust the upper shelves closer together to save room.

    Double check that your refrigerator is cold. (Remember that the temperature will rise if you have the door open, so be sure to check the temperature after the door has been closed for 20 or 30 minutes.) I like to keep mine as cold as possible without freezing my milk, but it should be set no warmer than 38°-40°F. You want to make sure that it is 40°F or cooler in every area of the fridge, so setting it lower may be necessary.

    This is a good chance to look over your shopping list for Turkey Day. Figure out the things that you need and the things that you already have. Make sure you have a meat thermometer! Food costs are going to be high this year, so you don’t want to buy ingredients that are already in the fridge or the cabinet. For example, I think I have enough salt for thirty years because I mistakenly thought I needed salt when I was planning a big meal … maybe it wasn’t me…

    I don’t have much counter space in my kitchen, so I have to spend a little time clearing off my counters before I take on a big cooking job. You also want to wash your countertops with warm soapy water. Double check that your roasting pan and casserole dishes are clean. Sometimes, if they aren’t used for several months, they can collect dust. Make sure you have at least two good cutting boards, one for food that is going to be cooked and one for food that will be eaten without being cooked. I like to use different colored cutting boards for ready-to-eat and pre-cooked foods. I also want to remind you to keep the knives and other utensils separate for ready-to-eat and pre-cooked foods.

    Or… you could spend your evenings watching TV and go to someone else’s house for Thanksgiving. Let your Mom (and, in my case, Dad) do the cooking. That’s my plan, but I still need to clean out my fridge. ;)

    Friday, October 28, 2011

    What is Nitrate?

    I recently had a discussion with another mom about nitrates and nitrites in meat and their safety. She said that she buys nitrate-free products for her kids. She is a smart lady and wants to do the best for her family’s health, but she didn’t even understand what nitrate or nitrites are and sure didn’t know why they were added to meats.
    I touched on nitrite a little bit in my processed meats post, but I thought a whole post about them might clear things up.
    Question one. What is nitrate/nitrite?  

    Nitrates and nitrites are chemical groups, part of lots of compounds, both natural and man-made. They are a combination of a nitrogen atom and either two (nitrite; NO2) or three (nitrate; NO3) oxygen atoms. When it’s added in processed meats it is usually combined with sodium or potassium (you would see it as Sodium Nitrite on the ingredient statement). Nitrite (the one with 2 oxygens) is most commonly used in meats.
    I mentioned in a previous post the benefits of nitrite in the diet and linked to the video by Dr. Nathan Bryan.
    Question two. Why is nitrite added to meats?
    Good question. Have you ever heard of cured meats of meat curing? Curing meat requires nitrite. Some good examples of cured meats are ham, bacon, hotdogs, and pepperoni.
    The nitrite in cured meats serves several purposes.

    1. It gives cured meats that pretty pink color and the color that lasts a long time (unlike fresh meat color).
    2. It gives cured meats their distinct flavor.  (Think about how a ham tastes so different from a pork roast.)
    3. It protects the meat from organisms that cause spoilage and disease. Cured meats have a longer shelf life than most uncured meats. Nitrite directly prevents the growth of that nasty ol’ Clostridium botulinum, which is the bacteria that causes botulism (it’s also the organism used to make Botox, but that doesn’t mean we want it in our meat).
    4. It prevents the meat from going rancid and protects the flavor of the meat.

    Many historians think that meat curing was discovered by accident when salt contaminated with nitrite was rubbed on meat. (Salt was one of the first ingredients added to meat).

    Question three. Why do we have uncured or no nitrite/nitrate added products?

    Natural and organic products have become very popular in the last few years.  I covered this in one of my first blog posts. The definitions of Natural and Organic are regulated by USDA, and nitrates and nitrites are not permitted as an ingredient in products with those labels. If you try to make cured meat products like ham, bacon, or hotdogs without nitrite, the meat turns out a gray color and won’t have the typical cured flavor. Not so good.

    Why don’t people want it?

    When consumed in large quantities, nitrite can be toxic. Also, nitrite can combine with protein in meat at high temperatures and form nitrosamines, which are cancer-causing agents. Now, the amount of nitrite added in processed meats is very small and most processed meats are not cooked at those very high temperatures, so the level of nitrosamines formed is almost none. Processors also started adding the antioxidants, ascorbate (vitamin C) and erythorbate (structurally related to vitamin C), to cured meats to block the formation of nitrosamines. There has also been some scary stuff published that attempted to link hot dogs with cancer, but those studies have since been disproven.

    So how do we get uncured ham and hotdogs that still look and taste like ham and hotdogs?

    Remember in the processed meats post, I mentioned the video of the interview my friend Dr. Jeff Sindelar? He told us that people ingest most dietary nitrite from green leafy vegetables and not from processed meats. Technically, it’s nitrate (NO3) that is found in most vegetables, but it’s is converted to nitrite in when it comes into contact with the saliva in your mouth. These same vegetables and/or their juices can be added to Natural meats as a source of nitrite. Processors may also add harmless bacteria, called a starter culture, to convert the nitrate in the vegetables into nitrite.

    But, why does it say “no nitrite or nitrate added” and “uncured”?

    Because nitrate or nitrite is not added directly, the process of the traditional cured meats is altered, so the manufacturers are required to say that it is “no nitrate or nitrite added” or that it is “uncured”. A more accurate term would probably be “indirectly cured” or “naturally cured”.

    So, is it better or worse than conventional cured meats?

    The answer to that question is, “Yes.” If you feel very strongly about eating natural or organic products and don’t want to consume artificial ingredients, or if there are other claims that accompany the natural claim, like grass-fed or antibiotic free, that are important to you, then these products will allow you to still enjoy hot dogs and ham and other cured meats. Realize that the nitrite is still in the meat product. It just comes from a natural source. 
    One concern I have is that other ingredients, such as lactates, that help inhibit spoilage and fight off pathogenic organisms are not allowed in natural and organic meats, so they may be more susceptible to spoilage and are more dependent on processing techniques to guard against pathogens. You should be very careful to observe the use by dates and store them correctly. See my lunch box safety post for that info.
    Natural and organic meats products are more expensive than traditionally-processed products, so the benefit of low cost protein is somewhat lost when you choose natural or especially organic.

    Thursday, October 13, 2011

    Meat color is a-changin’!

    Let’s say you bought some steaks or a roast at the grocery store, brought it home and stuck it in the fridge. (Hopefully, stored on a plate on the bottom shelf.) You don’t get around to fixing it (that’s Texan for preparing it) for supper for a day or two. You take it out of the fridge and it has a brownish color. Maybe a few brown spots or maybe the whole thing is just a little browner than it was when you bought it. Has it gone bad? Should you throw it out? It wasn’t cheap, so you hate to throw it out. What to do?
    Check the use-by date. Smell it. Does it smell bad? If it doesn’t smell bad and if you haven’t passed the use-by date, it’s probably ok.

    Why is it brown in my fridge when it was red in the store?
    Short answer. It oxidized. Muscle has an ability to prevent (really slow down) oxidation, but that ability runs out with time. Oxidized muscle is brown.
    Long answer. Well, to understand why meat is brown, we need to understand why it was red, first.
    Meat contains lots of proteins. Some are structural (they hold the meat together). Some are for contraction (remember that the meat was originally for moving an animal around). Some proteins hold onto oxygen to help provide the muscle with energy.
    These oxygen-holding proteins are largely responsible for meat color. The main one is called myoglobin. Myoglobin is closely related to the hemoglobin that holds oxygen as it is transported through our blood. Just like we learned in sixth grade science class that blood comes in two colors (red when it is exposed to oxygen in the arteries and blue when the oxygen is gone in the veins), meat pigment comes in those two colors, too. When it is not exposed to oxygen, meat has a purple color. You can see this color right after it is cut. Meat scientists call this ‘deoxymyoglobin’ because the myoglobin doesn’t have any oxygen. If you buy meat that has been vacuum packaged, it will be purplish in color.
    The meat will slowly take up oxygen from the air and turn red. In the meat business, we refer to the time it takes go from purple to red as ‘bloom time’. Most of the meat you buy in the store has been packaged so that the oxygen in the air is available to combine with the myoglobin in the meat. That’s why it is a pretty red color in the store.
    We recently did a research project studying bloom time. This is a picture of some steaks from that study. The ones in the front had just been removed from a vacuum package and were the purplish deoxymyoglobin. The ones in the back had been setting out for an hour, and you can see the bright red color.
    Purple to red… what about brown?
    Ok. So, even though the animal is no longer living, the enzymes in the muscle are still somewhat functional. The enzymes in charge of using oxygen to produce energy will take the oxygen and metabolize it. To do this, the pigment (actually, the iron in the pigment) is oxidized (it loses electrons). When the iron is oxidized, the meat will turn brown.
     In fresh meat, other enzymes can fix the problem by reducing the iron (give it electrons back) and it will turn back to purple. Then, it can grab some more oxygen and produce more energy and the cycle begins again. This really only happens on the surface of the meat where it is exposed to oxygen, so at first, you have a red layer with the purple underneath (everywhere on the meat that is exposed to air will be red. You won’t see the purple unless you cut it). At first, the brown coloring is not around long enough to see. As the process slows with time, a brown layer of pigment will form between the red and purple.

    Eventually, the enzymes will run out completely and the muscle will not be able to fix the oxidized, brown pigment and it will turn completely brown on the surface. That is the brown coloring you see. If you leave it long enough, the oxidation could spread to the fat and cause some off-flavors, but the paying attention to the use-by date should prevent that.
    Here is a picture from a study we conducted. Some steaks were left in retail cases (in our lab) for a week and allowed to turn brown. Then we cut them into little cubes. You can see the completely oxidized brown coloring on the surface and the purple coloring in the middle.

    Just remember to pay attention to the use-by dates on the package and if you don’t cook it by then, freeze it by then.  Use your nose and feel if the meat is slimy. If it’s smelly or slimy, cut your losses and throw it out.

    I also have a video blog about why meat is red.

    Wednesday, October 5, 2011


    Nothing is more frightening than seeing a food recall or a food poisoning outbreak on the news or online. Especially when it is a very common product that you use all the time, like ground beef or cantaloupe.

    A recall means that a problem has been found with a food, and the company that produced it is removing it from the food supply. This can be for a variety of reasons from undeclared allergens (ingredients that people may be allergic to that are not on the label) to contamination with bacteria or a virus.

    One recent recall was due to people getting sick from E. coli O157:H7 infection in Ohio (not all recalls are associated with sicknesses). Scientists tested the ground beef in the people’s homes and found that it was contaminated with that strain of E. coli. Meat companies print codes on their packages that allow them to trace any package back to the plant where the meat was produced, the day, sometimes even the production line and the time of day. They can use that information and look at their records to know exactly what other packages may be contaminated with the same bacteria and where they were sold.

    How do I find out about recalls?
    Recalls of retail products are usually on the local news. If you see something being recalled on the news, you can usually find out more information by going to the news website or to the website of the company that is issuing the recall. Sometimes you may have to search ‘recall’ when you get to their site.

    I know that not everyone watches the news, so I have been thinking of some other ways to find out about recalls. Because I’m a meat scientist, the first thing I thought of was FSIS. The Food Safety Inspection Service of the USDA has a recall page on their website that you could check, but this will only cover products under the jurisdiction of USDA (meat, poultry and eggs). The FDA also has a recall page, for FDA-regulated products (all food except meat, poultry, and eggs). Both of these pages offer an option to sign up for email alerts. The webpage http://www.foodsafety.gov/ combines the food safety information from FSIS and FDA and has US food recall information on one page where you can sign up for email alerts, follow them on facebook, twitter or as an RSS feed.

    How do I know if recalls apply to me?
    The recall information should give where the product was produced and the establishment number of the processing plant associated with the recall.

    What is an Establishment number?

    Every meat processing plant is given a specific number by the USDA. Any product that exits that plant has to have the Establishment number on its label.

    If the meat being recalled is red meat and is processed (most of it will be processed), it will have an inspection mark like the one in the middle of the picture above. If it is poultry (chicken, turkey) it will be like the one on the right.

    The recall will also tell you what states the recalled product was sold into. For meat and poultry recalls, they will tell you the ‘Best-by’ or ‘Freeze-by’ dates printed on the package. When meat is packaged in a plant, the processor prints a ‘Best-by’ or ‘Freeze-by’ date on the package that allow the consumer to know when to eat or freeze the product and to allow the processor to know when the product was made (simple subtraction).

    Sometimes these dates are hard to find. They are printed on the package as the meat goes down the production line, so they are simple, one-line, almost stamp-like. Sometimes they are on the bottom of a can or on the side of the package.

    Here are some pictures of some ham I had in the fridge. Notice the inspection mark with the establishment number on the bottom and the ‘best-by’ date at the top.
    See the establishment number
    in the little circle at the bottom?
    The use-by date

    Many times when a recall is issued, people will throw out things in their fridge or freezer just because it is the same type of product as what is being recalled. I think that is wasteful. 

    Here is an example: According to the Tyson website, a product recently recalled was 73% lean ground beef sold in 3- and 5-pound packages. The chubs had an Establishment Number of EST 245D and a Best-by or Freeze-by date of September 12. The product was produced on August 23. That means if you bought some 3- or 5-pound chubs of 73% ground beef between August 24 and September 12, you should go check your freezer and look to see if your ground beef has the EST 245D and a Best-by date or Freeze-by date of September 12.
    Chances are you didn’t buy 3 and 5-pound packages of 73% ground beef. Those are really big packages and it’s the fattiest ground beef available. If you buy leaner ground beef, it is not part of this recall. Don’t just throw out any ground beef you find.

    What about buying meat at the store?

    If a recall has been issued, you shouldn’t have to worry about that product still being on the shelf at a store. Stores are very diligent at getting recalled product removed from their shelves. Stores that have had recalled product will also have information about it on their website.

    What if I find recalled product in my fridge or freezer?

    If you find product in your house that has been recalled for any reason, you can take it back to the store. I would call the store first and ask about taking it back. You don’t want to show up with it and no one knows about the recall or what to do. I say this because after my year working in a grocery store, I realized that not everyone is always on the same page.

    If the recall was for some type of bacterial contamination (E. coli, salmonella, and Listeria have been the ones in the news lately), remember to treat the recalled product with care. If you find it in the fridge or the freezer, I would take it out, put it in a big, zip-lock-type freezer bag, make sure it sealed, and put it in the freezer. That will lessen the chances of it contaminating something else. Wash your hands thoroughly after you’ve handled it. Be sure to clean any surfaces it touched (plates for thawing, refrigerator shelves, counter top) with warm soapy water. When you do take it to the store, go directly there. Don’t leave it in your car for very long.

    If you have a question about a recall, you can always just ask me. If I don’t know the answer, I will find someone who does.

    Thursday, September 15, 2011

    Lunch box safety

    A study from the University of Texas was recently published in the journal, Pediatrics, and was widely covered on morning talk shows and in web articles. Basically, these scientists went into several pre-schools and daycare centers in Central Texas and took the temperature of perishable foods in kids’ lunch boxes about an hour and a half before lunchtime. What they found was very concerning. Only about 12% of the lunches were stored in refrigerators. (My lunch was never stored in the fridge at school, either). Most lunches were stored in the air-conditioned classrooms in cubbies. Over 97% of the meats, 99% of the dairy and 98% of the perishable veggies were at unsafe temperatures, in the DANGER ZONE of temperatures between 40 and 140°F. Realize this study was conducted in Central Texas in the fall of the year. The outside temperature was 81°F at 9:00 and 9:30 am, so it’s probably a worst-case scenario for temperatures.

    Furthermore, the food disease specialists that were interviewed in this article by Food Safety News said that they didn’t know of any cases where children were sickened by their packed lunches, but they were still concerned because the sickness would be isolated incidents and probably not reported. My opinion is similar in that, school lunches getting above 40°F for a very short time is probably not going to cause sickness most of the time, but this was an hour and a half before lunch. It also made me think that many ‘stomach bugs’ that kids get are packed in their lunches and sent with them to school.

    So, what to do?

    My first thought was to just put an ice pack in the lunch box. Duh! BUT, over 60% of the lunches in the study contained an ice-pack, some contained 2 or more. (Some contained five… I don’t really know how there was any room for food).
    The first step is to keep their food clean and cold for as long as possible. Minimize the time in the DANGER ZONE.

    Make sure you have an insulated lunch box/bag for your kids’ lunch. One website suggested storing them in the freezer, so the ice packs aren’t wasting energy by cooling down the lunch box (Note to all the Sheldon Cooper’s out there: let’s not get into true thermodynamics today). You could make their lunch the night before and store the whole thing in the fridge overnight, then stick an icepack from the freezer in there on your way out the door.

    Make sure your ice packs are as cold as possible. And, use real ice packs or blue ice. Baggies with ice cubes are not going to stay as cold. Some lunches in the study contained frozen teething rings (no joke) or frozen juice boxes. Those aren’t going to work either. Buy two or three ice packs and rotate them in the freezer, so that the one you are putting in the lunch box is as cold as possible.

    For older kids, you can make a build-your-own-lunch. Pack the meat in its own baggie and make sure it lies right next to the ice pack. It will stay coldest that way. Then, pack the bread, cheese, and veggies separate. Remember that veggies, like lettuce, also need to stay cold. Bread is a good insulator; put it closest to the opening of the lunch box. Also, don’t use a lunch box that is too large. All the air in the extra space in a large lunch box is hard to keep cold. 

    If you are worried about processed meats, you should check out my blog posts on processed meats or nitrates.
    The use by date on this package of ham
    is at the top under the word 'RESEALABLE'
    Pack as fresh and clean a lunch as possible. When preparing kids’ lunches, make sure you wash your hands (especially grubby little helper’s hands). Make sure the counter top has been washed. Wash the inside of the lunch box out. Keep your own fridge as cold as possible and check the dates on your deli meats. You don’t need to store unopened deli meats in the fridge for longer than two weeks, and once you open a package of deli meats, you need to use it all in 3 to 5 days. Remember that every time you put your hand in the package, you are potentially exposing the meat to germs, so make sure your hands are clean. Hot dogs are another popular option for kids’ lunches, but treat them like a deli meat. If you only go to the store once a month, freeze your extra deli meats until you are ready to use them.
    Some scientists suggest that the condiments on the sandwich help minimize bacterial growth. Mayonnaise and MiracleWhip are acidic, and mustard can also slow bacterial growth, so adding these may help, too.

    Another option is to only pack non-perishable items in kids’ lunch boxes. I am not saying that means cutting out meat. Rather than a ham or turkey sandwich, pack beef jerky or beef sticks with crackers, cheese, and fruit (How Mediterranean!). There are some shelf-stable (don’t need refrigeration) pepperoni products out there. Some types of summer sausage don’t need refrigeration. Occasionally packing a peanut butter (and jelly) sandwich may also be an option, but some kids have peanut allergies.

    You could always ask your kids’ teachers about keeping their lunch in the fridge.

    I hope this post helps you to feel better about fixing your child's lunch for school. If you have any ideas for lunches, comments or questions, please comment below.


    Thursday, September 8, 2011

    What is really in processed meats?

    While you are reading the first few sentences of this post, imagine (better yet, sing) an accompaniment of dooming background music. Think Darth Vader. I am going to talk about what is in processed meats (this is a good place for the ‘dun dun duh’ part of the song). Everyone knows the old saying about the only two things you don’t want to see being made are… sausage and legislation. And, we all learned from those menacing little raccoons on ‘The Great Outdoors’ that hot dogs are made from lips and assholes. (dun dun duh).

    Some processed meats in Germany from a trip
     several years ago.
    Well, as entertaining as the raccoons and the jokes about law-makers may be, they are wrong about processed meats (now imagine light-hearted back ground music). Processed meats are an inexpensive source of protein. They are safe and convenient. They are NOT made with lips and assholes (sorry about the language, Mother) unless it’s on the label.

    In the US, we have some of the most stringent food labeling laws in the world. If an ingredient is in a food, then it is on the label. (Side note: I worked at a grocery store in college, and occasionally we had to package ‘real Mexican Chorizo’. Being a meat academic, I read the ingredient statement on the label. Do you really think this company would let us know that their product contained pork salivary glands if they didn’t have to? Uh. No.) If you want to know what is in a certain processed meat, look on the label. If it says ‘Beef’ or ‘Pork’ like most processed meats do, it is only skeletal meat (muscles used to move the bones around). As of right now, that means beef products may contain lean, finely textured beef. Any organ meat (hearts, livers) have to be listed on the label. Lips and ass holes really don’t make very good sausage, anyway.

    So, why are processed meats inexpensive? Well, not every bit of a beef or pork carcass will make a good steak or roast. Sometimes the pieces are too small, and sometimes it is too tough to be eaten without being ground up. Those pieces are combined and ground up. Processors add other ingredients like salt and spices for flavor and texture. They are adding value to the low-cost parts and giving us a great tasting, inexpensive source of protein. Processed meats are the only source for protein for kids from some families because it is all they can afford.

    Furthermore, lots of processed meats (hot dogs, bologna, and deli meats) are pre-cooked and can be eaten straight out of the fridge*. They are quick and easy. Any meat product that is ‘ready-to-eat’, meaning completely cooked and ready to be served to the consumer without any further preparation, is subject to extra regulations by USDA. They have to show how they are keeping their product safe, they may add extra, bacteria fighting measures to the process, and are subject to extra bacteria testing. It is safe stuff.

    Some people worry about nitrite in processed meats. Nitrite is a key ingredient that gives cured meats the flavor and color we have become accustomed to enjoying. Think pink hams and hot dogs. Yum! Also, nitrite prevents the growth of a nasty bacteria Clostridium botulinum, the one that causes botulism.

    Did you know that you get more nitrite from green, leafy vegetables than from processed meats? Actually, the body makes nitrite using saliva combined with these vegetables because it needs it. The body uses nitrite to perform all kinds of functions from regulating blood pressure to helping heal wounds and brain injury after a stroke.

    The folks at the American Meat Institute did an interview with a friend of mine, Jeff Sindelar at the University of Wisconsin about sources of nitrite in the diet. His main research focus is on nitrites in processed meats.

    There are some very scary claims out there linking hot dogs with an increased cancer risk. Although these claims are recurrently cycled on the news, the data that they are based on is from over 40 years ago. They claim that the nitrite in processed meats (hot dogs) is a carcinogen. There is a researcher at the University of Texas named Dr. Nathan Bryan who studies the effects of dietary nitrite on the human body, and he says that current research not only found no cancer risk with nitrite, but also found health benefits. Basically, current science says, “Don’t be afraid of hotdogs!”

    Also, I have written a post about nitrite and one about making sausage in our meat lab.
    Besides, do you really think ESPN would put an international broccoli eating competition on TV?

    *(Side note: Just to be extra safe, pregnant women should not eat hotdogs and deli meats, without heating them up first, because of an abortion-causing bacteria rarely found in ready-to-eat deli meats and hotdogs)