Food & Drinks

How safe is the meat you are eating?

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From selection of the cut to storage, preparation and cooking, every interaction with meat is an opening for possible contamination. SHUTTERSTOCK

Summary

  • When buying meat from the local butcher, a few look beyond colour or bother to trace the source of the meat to confirm if it is indeed safe for consumption.
  • From selection of the cut to storage, preparation and cooking, every interaction with meat is an opening for possible contamination.

Do you wash your meat before cooking? At what temperature do you refrigerate it? How do you determine a cut is fresh? How safe is the meat that you consume?

These are all key questions when it comes to handling animal products and for Eva Mugo, the founder of Dinner Box, a meal kit delivery company in Nairobi, meat safety is a priority in her line of work.

Her company delivers meal plans consisting of fresh vegetables, chicken, chicken tacos, lamb, fish, and beef recipes. According to her, handling meat is the most delicate part of her job.

“I only buy meat from suppliers that I trust to deliver fresh and safe meat. Even so, I must inspect the meat myself for any discolouration or odd odours,” Eva says.

To prepare the meal plans, Eva explains that she must disinfect her work surface and wear gloves to minimise the risk of contamination.

“I don’t store meat. I order on the day I’m making deliveries because some clients don’t cook the meat immediately,” she explains.

For transit, Eva puts her meat on trays and wraps it with a cling film before packaging the recipes in insulated boxes. “For longer distances, I add icepacks to keep it cool,” she says, noting that dripping juices from meat are the worst nightmare in the food delivery business.

“You must seal it tightly or dry the meat before packaging.”

With the average Kenyan chowing down an estimated 15 kilos per year, according to a 2019 survey by Kenya Market Trust, meat is a key component on the dining table.

Food safety expert Erastus Kang’ethe argues that few foods are as prone to contamination as meat.

From selection of the cut to storage, preparation and cooking, every interaction with meat is an opening for possible contamination.

Every year, thousands of Kenyan meat consumers, and millions globally, are poisoned by eating meat that is contaminated with bacteria, protozoa, fungal elements and other pathogens.

To put this into perspective, the World Bank in 2019 stated that Kenya loses Sh100 billion worth of productivity because of food-borne diseases every year.

“Spoilage in meat is caused by organisms which form on the cut as a result of either poor handling or storage methods,” Prof Kang’ethe says. He argues that unless meat is smelly, slimy to touch or tacky, it is safe for consumption.

Colour

To most consumers, colour is key to determining the freshness of a cut. This is a misconception, according to Prof Kang’ethe, a food science expert and former veterinary lecturer at the University of Nairobi.

The normal colour of meat (cherry-red for beef, dark cherry-red for lamb, and pale pink for veal) does not last long after slaughter.

Prof Kang’ethe says that changes of colour in the carcass occur when oxygen combines with the pigment myoglobin, one of the enzymes responsible for colour in meat.

Meat contains fats, iron and other compounds. When exposed to direct light, pigments in meat form a rainbow of colours, including brown, yellow and green.

“Different colours in meat don’t necessarily mean the meat is bad. Dark red, for instance, is as a result of chemical reactions in the muscle,” he explains.

While this change in colour alone doesn’t always indicate spoilage, it may signal the start of rotting.

It’s for this reason that meat is often packaged in airtight wrappers and kept in dimly lit rooms. If bought at a supermarket, always remember to check the expiry date of a cut.

Sometimes, you may buy meat to cook later, or some may remain after cooking. As in selection of the right cut, storage of meat –whether by refrigeration of freezing –determines if the meat will be safe for consumption when it’s ready for cooking.

Besides safety, it’s during storage that meat develops flavours, making it tastier to eat, says Prof Kang’ethe.

Refrigeration and freezing are recommended during storage. If you choose to refrigerate your cut, do so at temperatures of between –2 degrees Celsius and 0 degrees Celsius. At temperatures above 20 degrees Celsius, bacteria grow rapidly, spoiling the meat.

Nonetheless, cured and smoked meat takes longer to spoil. It’s highly recommended to refrigerate meats in their original cans.

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Smoked beef. Cured and smoked meat takes longer to spoil. FOTOSEARCH

It is during this storage process that ageing is done—the process where the meat is hung in a controlled environment and temperature to develop flavour and breakdown muscle for a tender cut of meat.

Freezing is a more popular meat storage method, with better odds of preservation. To freeze meat, food safety experts recommend trimming of excess fats and deboning the meat. Removing fats eliminates the possibility of spoilage when the fats they undergo chemical changes.

Prof Kang’ethe warns against salting meat during storage as this draws water from the cut and oxidises the fats, resulting in an undesirable (rancid) flavour.

While it’s possible to store beef and lamb in frozen conditions for up to 12 months, pork can only be stored for a maximum of six months owing to the presence of unsaturated fatty acids that accelerate spoilage.

Food safety experts advise that meat should be defrosted for about 24 hours in the fridge and never at room temperature. The meat should be put on a plate and covered before putting it away in the fridge.

Storage

Handling raw meat is as important as its storage. Meat is most dangerous when raw. It’s at this stage that it’s likely to be contaminated or to spread bacteria to other foods leading to food poisoning. Notably, all raw meats contain contaminants.

When you pick up meat at the store, experts recommend that you keep it separate from other foods and items to avoid contact and possible cross contamination.

Beef, lamb and fish should be stored in different compartments of the fridge to avoid contamination. With modern technology, freezers now come with separate compartments to store white meat and red meat for easier handling.

In the fridge or freezer, meat should be kept at the lowest shelf to keep its juices from dripping to other foods and contaminating them.

Never use the same knife, chopping board or other utensils for different meats or meat and groceries. After using the board, be sure to clean it properly.

The risk of contamination remains high in the kitchen as meat is being processed. It’s recommended that you wash and dry your hands to minimise spreading bacteria and other pathogens to the meat.

Just as in restaurants, the home should adopt colour coded chopping boards for meats and vegetables for ease of identifying which board is for what. Alternatively, a thorough wash of the utensils asn surfaces between meat cutting and handling of other produce lowers the risk.

Washing beef, chicken, lamb, turkey or duck before cooking, which many people do, is considered a poor food safety practice and a food safety hazard.

Dr Jonathan Campbell of North American Meat Institute (NAMI) argues that washing meat could potentially spread the bacteria in it to other foods or surfaces in the kitchen. Additionally, the scholar notes, washing meat doesn’t remove bacteria. Only cooking it at the right temperatures does.

Is there a standard way of preparing meat? The answer is nay. To most people, cooking meat is a straightforward process that involves simply introducing it to heat. Prof Kang’ethe though disputes this, noting that proper preparation of meat for safe consumption is a complex affair that requires the right skills and patience.

“You must cook your meat well to derive the right flavours and, most importantly, to kill germs that can cause food poisoning,” he says.

Raw meat should be cooked after 24 hours of defrosting it. If defrosted in a microwave, the meat should be cooked and eaten immediately.

Whole meat cuts such as beef steak and joints may have bacteria on the outside while white meat such as pork, chicken and fish can have bacteria within the muscle. Mincing and skewering meat spreads bacteria within the meat, increasing the risk of food poisoning.

How do you determine that meat is well cooked? Experts say that when high temperature is used, the outside of the cut changes colour, indicating destruction of contaminants.

How you eat your meat too bears on your health and safety. Different people enjoy their meat cooked or grilled in a certain way. Some eaters prefer theirs well-cooked, others medium done and others rare. Beef steak and lamb, for instance, are popular with the ‘‘rare’’ option.

But who should eat rare meat? It’s recommended that elderly and sick people, toddlers and pregnant women should steer clear of rare/pink lamb and beef for health reasons.

When cooked rare, meat doesn’t attain the right temperature to kill bacteria and other germs that may be in the cut, which endanger vulnerable people. To kill bacteria completely, meat must be cooked at a temperature of at least 115 degrees Celsius.

‘‘It’s important to be mindful of how you handle the meat lest you end up with something you can’t eat or one that poisons you,’’ warns Prof Kang’ethe.

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