• Friday, March 23, 2012

    How would you like that cooked?

    You order steak or a burger at a restaurant and the waiter or waitress asks, “how would you like that cooked?” What is your response? Well, if you are ordering a steak, there is no wrong answer to that question. HOWEVER, you should ALWAYS order hamburgers or any other ground meat dish cooked to medium, medium well, or well done. I always order mine medium well.

    Why should hamburgers be cooked to medium well, but steaks can be cooked to rare?

    Today, I visited a Family and Consumer Science Class and demonstrated to them the answer to this question with play-doh. (I had to fight the little Daughter at the Meat Counter off the play doh.) I took some pictures to share on my blog.

    When steaks are cut, there is a possibility that bacteria (disease-causing germs) could be on the surface of the steak. Steaks (and roasts, too) are whole-muscle cuts, meaning that they have been cut into serving- or cooking-size pieces, but the internal portion of the cut is still undisturbed. So, those bacteria are going to only be on the surface of the steak, and when you cook it, the surface will be the first to get hot and it will get the hottest. Any bacteria on the surface are going to be killed in the cooking process. The internal part of the meat does not have to get hot enough to kill any bacteria. So cooking steaks to rare or medium-rare is perfectly safe.

    Do you like my little play-doh steaks? The green dots are the bacteria (only on the surface). The Daughter at the Meat Counter thought they were peas.

    Ground beef is made from smaller cuts of beef that are trimmed away from the steaks and roasts. They are not lower quality or inferior in anyway other than they are too small or too tough to make good steaks are roasts. (Actually, which parts are cut into steaks and roasts and which parts are ground into hamburger is largely driven by ground beef demand. People like hamburgers.) These parts and pieces (trim) are kept in large containers and transported to the grinding room in the plant. All of these little pieces could have bacteria on their surfaces just like the steaks above. Several companies have researched different ways to treat the trim pieces to lower the bacterial count on the surface.

    Here is my play-doh trim. It’s smaller and cut into irregular pieces. The bacteria are still only on the surface.

    Here is where the difference is. The trim is ground. When meat is ground, it is pushed through a metal plate with small holes. Behind the plate, is a rotating knife that cuts the meat and allows it to be pushed through the plate.

    This is not play-doh. I actually have pictures of real meat! Yay! You can see the round strands of ground beef coming through the plate.

    Now, any of those bacteria that were on the surface of the meat are mixed up and spread all throughout the ground beef. When we make patties out of the ground beef, the bacteria could be on the surface or anywhere inside the patty.

    These are some patties we made for a research project. Real bacteria don’t have color and you can’t see them on or in your patties.
    It is easier to see the green, play-doh, bacteria mixed in with the red in my play-doh patty.
    When I tore open my little play-doh patty, the students could see the green bacteria all throughout the patty.

    So, when you cook patties, you should always cook them to 160 °F. USE A MEAT THERMOMETER. Make sure the thermometer is inserted into the middle of the patty.

    When you order hamburgers at a restaurant, ALWAYS order them to medium or greater.

    If you have other questions about food safety, I wrote a blog post about food safety in September.

    A common conversation over steak dinners with meat scientists is how we order our steaks. I order my steaks cooked to medium-rare. Why, you ask? Well, there are two main types of protein in meat that affect tenderness, connective tissue (holds it all together) and myofibrillar (causes the muscle to contract). These two proteins react differently to exposure to heat. Connective tissue (collagen) protein dissolves to gelatin when it is heated, so it becomes more tender. The myofibrillar proteins harden as they are heated and become tougher. The optimum combination of collagen dissolving and myofibrillar hardening happens at about the temperature of medium-rare. Yum.

    Some people don’t like the serumy (bloody) flavor associated with medium-rare and they want their steaks cooked longer (my mom). I guess that’s ok. If you like more well done steaks, I suggest you buy steaks with more marbling (USDA Choice, Prime, and Certified Angus Beef). The extra marbling protects the tenderness of those steaks when you cook them more.

    Like I said, there is really no wrong answer to the question, “how would you like your steak cooked?”

    However, you must cook hamburgers to medium (160°F) or greater.

    Friday, March 9, 2012

    We are not really talking about pink slime

    What a lovely way to title a blog post! Pink slime! Wednesday night, ABC news reported a story about a product that is found in many ground beef products. They reported that a ‘whistle-blower’ USDA employee has come out telling the world about the evils of ‘Lean Finely-Textured Beef.’ This former USDA microbiologist, coined the term ‘pink slime.’ Celebrity chef, Jaime Oliver has falsely reported about this product in the past, too. He is so off-base and his approach is so theatrical, I couldn’t even bear to link to his video. 

    Since the ABC report, other news agencies have picked it up and informed us that Lean Finely-Textured Beef is in school lunches and in lots of the beef in grocery stores. The videos and the story links have been lighting up my facebook and Twitter feeds for the better part of two days. 

    First, what is ‘Lean Finely-Textured Beef?’

    What the media is calling pink slime, we, in the industry, call “Lean Beef Trimmings” or “Lean Finely Textured Beef”. I’ve done research with the stuff, and I didn’t think it was slimy at all. This is a picture of the LBT that we used for a research project last fall.
    It is kinda pink. News flash: meat is usually a pink or red color! It doesn’t really look like the typical ground beef in the grocery store because it is ground up much finer than that. It is also shipped frozen. It may be shipped in big frozen blocks, but we ordered it in this chipped version so we could weigh it out more easily.

    How is it made?

    When cattle are harvested and cut into the beef steaks and roasts that we buy at the grocery store or that restaurants buy, pieces of lean and fat are trimmed away. Some of that lean and fat can be used to make ground beef and other sausage products. But, some of it is too fatty for ground beef and sausage. There is still lean protein in the fatty parts, but, before the Lean Finely-Textured Beef process came along, there was not really an economical way to remove the lean protein from the fatty trim. So it was thrown away.

    Several years ago, a company called Beef Products Inc., patented a method to remove the lean tissue from the fatty trim. That way, the lean protein is not wasted and we are getting more protein out of every animal.

    So, how does it work?

    They start with fatty trim that is about 80% fat and 20% lean protein. These trimmings were sampled and tested by USDA for harmful bacteria before they arrived at the plant. The trimmings are heated it to about 100°F so that the fat will soften. Then, it is spun in a big mixing bowl machine to separate the lean from the fat.

    The lean is then treated with a puff of ammonia gas and the ammonia reacts with the water on the product and converts it to ammonium hydroxide. This treatment has been one of the hot-button issues for this whole process. Ammonia gas and ammonium hydroxide are not the same as the house-hold cleaner, as a certain celebrity chef wants you to believe. The gas treatment raises the pH of the meat and destroys the bacteria on the meat. (Dead bacteria can’t make your kids sick.) Essentially, the ammonium hydroxide makes the product even safer.

    Ammonium hydroxide is found naturally in some foods and other foods, such as baked goods, cheeses, caramels, chocolate, gelatins and puddings, contain ammonium hydroxide. Here is a video interview with Dr. Gary Acuff from Texas A&M talking about the addition of ammonium hydroxide to lean beef trimmings.

    So, it’s safe?
    The final product is tested for deadly bacteria before it leaves the plant. Countless scientists agree that this product is safe and is produced using a safe process. This article lists several of those scientists and statements they made about the safety of this product. These are microbiologists from Texas A and M University, scientists from USDA, a former president of the National Consumer League, and the nation’s leading food borne illness attorney.

    What products contain LBT?
    When LBT is made, it contains 95% lean protein or greater. So, it is added to ground beef to increase the lean percentage. Because of its fine texture, it can only be added in a small percentage or it will affect the texture of the ground beef. ABC reported that 70% of ground beef in grocery stores contain LBT. So far, I haven’t been able to confirm or deny that number. I couldn’t find the link to cite, but I believe that McDonald’s stopped using LBT because the finely textured properties didn’t work in their beef.

    Is it on the label?

    No. It is 100% beef. Lean Beef Trimmings is not listed as a separate ingredient on the label.

    Obviously, I am not the only person writing about this. There are several other blogs and articles to read.
    The American Meat Institute has a list of questions and answers about the process. My new twitter friend, Travis Arp, a graduate student at Colorado State, has seen the product being made and writes about it in this blog post. (New additions on Monday, March 12, 2012 - pinkslimeisamyth.com and a blog entitled Common Sense Agriculture)Beef Products Inc. has issued a statement about all the recent publicity. And, of course there is the Meat Myth Crushers video. The list could go on and on.

    3-28-12 amendment: Since I posted this, several more websites and articles have been posted telling the real story about Lean Finely-Textured Beef, ammonium hydroxide, and the safety of this product. I felt like I needed to add them to this post.
    • A video about the misrepresentation by Jaime Oliver.
    • A video about the use of ammonia in foods.
    • A interview with Dr. Thomas Powell, Executive Director of the American Meat Science Association (a personal friend of mine). This is a great explanation of this product.
    • A statement from the American Meat Institute President, J. Patrick Boyle.
    • A blog post by agriculture advocate, Trent Loos. (One huge step backwards for mankind.)
    • Several website links are available on the website beefisbeef.com.
    • A heart-wrenching article by Nancy Donley, president of STOP food borne illness. Her only child, Alex, died from kidney failure after consuming hamburger contaminated E. coli O157:H7.
    Please read or watch some of these resources and share the truth with people you know.

    Here is the bottom line on my thoughts about Lean Beef Trimmings.

    Yes, it is safe. It is treated to kill bacteria.

    Yes, it is wholesome. It is protein, that, without this process, we would not have access to.

    Yes, I would feed it to my family. I do.

    Disclaimer – the temperature and the ammonium hydroxide gas treatment are specific to the Lean Finely-Textured Beef product from one company. Other, similar products are also made, using similar processes.