Got meat? How to buy, cook and eat it safely

Veggie burger or burger-burger? What you order used to come down to whether you are a vegetarian or carnivore, or whether you’re in the mood for something light or something juicy. But today, your answer may be driven by more complex considerations like where the meat came from, your concerns about heart disease risk and your feelings about environmental sustainability.

Consider, for example, a new analysis from the Environmental Working Group, which reports that nearly 80 percent of the government-tested bacteria on supermarket ground turkey, pork chops, ground beef and chicken were antibiotic-resistant in 2015, the most recent year from which data is available.

That means that the food is likely to house bacteria that doesn’t respond to the medications intended to kill it, due to widespread farming practices involving the use of antibiotics to encourage growth and prevent disease in animals.

“If you eat that meat and undercook it, you could get a salmonella infection that’s resistant to amoxicillin,” explains registered dietitian Dawn Undurraga, who authored the report. “The bigger concern is we use [that drug] to treat ear infections, we use [it] to treat pneumonia, and all these important things for our kids.” If the drug stops working due in part to its use in farm animals raised to become burgers and chops, she continues, humans will be at a loss when they need effective treatments for common, and often serious, conditions.

[See: What’s Really in Those Meatless Meats?]

Concerns about antibiotic-resistant bacteria and its consequences for both individuals and the population aren’t new; the World Health Organization calls antibiotic resistance “one of the biggest threats to global health, food security and development today.” But this report calls out the U.S. government for not implementing and enforcing strong enough policies against the production and use of unnecessary antibiotics in farm animals, and for skirting what EWG says is the truth in its own reports on progress. Since its initial report five years ago, the EWG is “still seeing high levels of antibiotic-resistant bacteria on meat,” Undurraga says. “We don’t need to wait until it’s 100 percent resistant before we take some strong action.”

But before throwing out your meat and your summer barbecue plans, understand the context, recommends Joy Dubost, a registered dietitian and food scientist outside of New York City. “We know this is not just a meat issue,” she says, noting that physicians write 80 million unnecessary antibiotic prescriptions each year, which is also contributing to the problem. It’s unclear how much each factor comes in to play. What’s more, not all antibiotics used in animals are medically important to humans, though Undurraga says their use is still problematic since resistant traits can spread between bacteria.

You may take comfort in knowing, however, that national and global organizations are trying to “nip it in the bud,” Dubost says, in part through physician education. While the EWG says it’s not enough, the Food and Drug Administration, the White House, the World Health Organization and other organizations are also taking steps to respond to the problem. “The most important thing for consumers to know is that [the U.S. Department of Agriculture] and the industry test for bacteria on meat and poultry every single day, and data show today’s meat and poultry supply is safer than ever,” says KatieRose McCullough, the director of regulatory and scientific affairs for the North American Meat Institute, a trade association.

Perhaps most practically, consumers should understand that any bacteria on meat — antibiotic-resistant or not — can’t infect you if the meat is properly cooked first. “By taking proper precautions,” Dubost says, “you can definitely eliminate the cause.” Here are the main pointers to remember if burgers, grilled chicken sandwiches or pork chops are on your menu:

Smartphone apps can help shoppers find coupons, compare prices or price match.  (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)
Shop smartly. If you wander around the grocery store, popping a chicken breast in your basket, then some chips and milk before you remember to pick up paper towels, your approach isn’t just inefficient — it can be risky. “Getting your cold products last in your basket is the best move,” Dubost says, since getting them early in your spree gives them time to warm up. It’s also important to keep your meat separate from the rest of your items in your cart, and to wrap it in a plastic bag to protect your other food from drippings. “If it’s going to take more than 30 minutes for you to get home — especially in the summer — you may want to think about getting an insulated cooler [for your car],” Dubost adds. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer) (AP/Michael Dwyer)
It has yet to be seen how the Trump administration views changes in food labeling and other food regulations approved during the Obama adminisration. (AP Photo/LM Otero, File)
Select with savvy. Beyond making sure you choose meat that’s not past its sell-by date, consider looking for those cuts that are less-likely to host antibiotic-resistant bacteria if that concerns you, or if you want to make a public health, environmental and animal welfare impact by supporting farmers who rely less on antibiotics and other synthetic treatments. Organic meat or those raised without antibiotics are good bets, Underraga says. To figure out what labels truly indicate antibiotic-free meats, dairy and eggs, check out the EWG’s label decoder. While choosing highly-ranked cuts will likely be more expensive, that’s not a bad thing for your health, the environment or even your wallet if it encourages you to cut down on meat consumption overall, Underraga says. (AP Photo/LM Otero, File) (AP/LM Otero)
Bill Clay, Kristi Clay, Xavier Clay, Ami Clay
Store swiftly. Right away, put your meat in the refrigerator or, if it’s going to be more than two days before you cook it, the freezer. You can freeze meat in its original packaging for up to two weeks, Dubost says; “the air can get to it otherwise.” For a longer freezer stay, wrap the meat in heavy aluminum foil or a freezer bag. Once it’s ready to thaw, either run it under cold water or microwave it according to packaging instructions. Whatever you do, Dubost says, “don’t ever thaw it or defrost it at room temperature,” since that’s when it’s susceptible to bacteria.
(AP Photo/John Minchillo) (AP)
Mid Section View of a Young Woman Cutting a Carrot on a Chopping Board at a Kitchen Counter
Prepare patiently. Being hungry — or excited to serve hungry guests — won’t sound like a good excuse if you or someone else winds up with food poisoning, which is “the biggest concern related to meat and poultry consumption, just as it is with any raw agricultural product,” McCullough says. To help prevent it, wash your hands in warm, soapy water for 20 seconds before handling the meat, and anytime you switch between touching it and non-meat. Use separate cutting boards and knives, too, for meat and other items, Dubost says. Once it’s ready, throw it on the flame. The idea that it needs to warm to room temperature before cooking is a myth, Dubost says.(Thinkstock) (Getty Images/Digital Vision.)
Grilled Kobe beef fresh from the grill with meat thermometer still in it.  White platter on rustic wooden cutting board with grilling tongs.
Cook completely. You might prefer the taste of a pink- or even red-centered burger, but so do bacteria. “Cooking to the right temperature is one of the biggies” to prevent foodborne illness, says Dubost, who recommends using a meat thermometer rather than eyeballing the patty’s color to determine when it’s ready to eat. Just refer to the USDA’s guide to learn the minimum safe internal temperature for various types of meat, McCullough recommends. If you’ve got your safety bases covered, you’re more likely to fulfill your barbecue’s purpose: to have fun. (Thinkstock) (Getty Images/iStockphoto/Warren_Price)
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Smartphone apps can help shoppers find coupons, compare prices or price match.  (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)
It has yet to be seen how the Trump administration views changes in food labeling and other food regulations approved during the Obama adminisration. (AP Photo/LM Otero, File)
Bill Clay, Kristi Clay, Xavier Clay, Ami Clay
Mid Section View of a Young Woman Cutting a Carrot on a Chopping Board at a Kitchen Counter
Grilled Kobe beef fresh from the grill with meat thermometer still in it.  White platter on rustic wooden cutting board with grilling tongs.

[See: Red, White and Blue Nutritious Fourth of July Foods.]

[See: Should I Wash the Turkey Before Cooking It?]

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Got Meat? How to Buy, Cook and Eat It Safely originally appeared on usnews.com

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