When raw meat ends up in your kitchen, you should treat it as if it's teeming with deadly pathogens from the bowels of the animal.
It often is.
Too many people fail to take safe food handling seriously. In response to previous stories I've written on the subject, some readers have said, for instance, they don't mind risking food poisoning from eating a hamburger done rare because they figure diarrhea doesn't kill.
At least 12 people have become sick with an E. coli strain linked to beef from XL Foods. The meat plant is under scrutiny after tainted beef processed at its Brooks, Alta., facility made it onto retailers' shelves across the country.
Thankfully, none of the dozen has died from their illness -- unlike the listeria-tainted meat from Maple Leaf that killed 22 people in 2008.
American officials were the ones who first found the bacteria during tests they performed Sept. 3 at the border. Ten days later, the U.S. stopped accepting meat from XL.
Canadians didn't find out about the tainted meat until Sept. 16, when the Canadian Food Inspection Agency issued a nationwide beef recall of XL products--the largest recall of its kind in Canadian history.
E. coli (Escherichia coli) is a group of bacteria that is often found in the intestines of humans and animals. Some strains of E. coli can cause severe stomach cramps and vomiting. At its worst, E.coli can lead to kidney failure.
And, yes. It can kill.
Amid the chaos of the beef recall, Canadians are asking what went wrong?
On Wednesday, Doug O'Halloran, the union head representing XL Foods workers, shed some light on what happens to meat during the slaughtering process.
The picture O'Halloran described was not pretty: Cows covered with feces that sometimes went unwashed before slaughter; workers tracking manure on their shoes through the plant; a production line that went so fast workers didn't have time to sanitize their knives in between cuts; and temporary workers who, apparently, weren't properly trained.
Amid the finger pointing (Is it the government's fault? The company's? The workers'? The union's?), one thing is clear: If XL Foods had effective leaders managing it, this crisis could have been avoided.
Another factor in the outbreak that not many people are talking about: Safe food handling. Cooking E.coli-tainted meat properly kills the bacteria. Proper handling can ensure bacteria isn't spread around the kitchen.
(Nevertheless, all recalled meat should be thrown away, says Lesly Andrews, a public health inspector who teaches FoodSafe, a course for restaurant workers and food handlers run by the city and the province.)
"There is no safe food handling of the tainted meat," says Andrews.
She says that since the 2008 Maple Leaf listeria outbreak, more home cooks are interested in knowing how to prevent food poisoning.
"People are coming to my course in a lot greater numbers," she says. "I think they are surprised at what they learn."
Here's another reminder about handling meat safely:
Don't "temperature abuse" your food, says Andrews, who notes that investing in a couple of instant-read digital thermometers is the best way to ensure your food is hot enough to be free of micro-organisms. To check the temperature of hotdogs and hamburgers, she suggests using a thermometer with a fine probe. Use one with a thicker probe for more sturdy cuts of meat. Keep in mind that judging a meat's doneness by colour is inaccurate. The only way to know if it's properly done is to check its internal temperature. Andrews says the thermometer can be a source of contamination if you don't wash it properly right after you insert it into meat. Scrub with hot, soapy water before re-using.
Ground beef precautions
Cook your hamburger meat to 71 C (160 F). It's relatively safe to eat a properly cooked medium-rare steak. Ground beef is different. Any existing E. coli on the beef is pressed through the meat once it's ground. That's why the CFIA recommends cooking hamburgers to an internal temperature proven to destroy E. coli. It's true that the longer ground beef sits around, the more likely any existing E. coli will multiply. Freshly ground beef cooked right away could harbour less E. coli. Remember that E. coli can inadvertently land on even the finest cuts of meat during slaughtering. So, not even your filet mignon is safe unless it's cooked to the correct temperature.
You put a steak on the barbecue and when it's time, you flip it with your tongs. But transferring the cooked meat to your plate using those same tongs -- the ones that touched the meat when it was raw -- is a bad idea. Instead, keep two sets of tongs in your kitchen. Make them different colours or different sizes so you know which is for handling raw meat and which is for cooked. The same goes for spoons you use to stir meat cooking on the stove. Once the meat is cooked, switch to a different spoon. Use separate cutting boards, as well.
The CFIA recommends washing contaminated utensils and cutting boards in a mild solution of bleach and water. First, wash your item in detergent. Next, immerse it in a solution of 5 ml (1 tsp) of bleach for every 750 ml (3 cups) of water. Soak for two minutes and air dry. Don't forget about your sink. Wash it with soapy water before filling it with the bleach solution.
Cool food rapidly
Andrews says when your big pot of beef stew, for example, comes out of the oven, it's important to cool it quickly, so pathogens don't have times to develop and multiply. Do this by putting the stew in shallow containers that have been immersed in an ice bath. Place it the fridge right away.
Heat leftovers quickly
When reheating that big pot of stew, place covered pot in a hot oven until the inside of the meat reaches 165 F within two hours.
For more information on FoodSafe courses, log onto www.foodhandling.ca or call 204-888-2442.
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