May 26, 2011 USDA Lowers Cooking Temperature for Pork
USDA announced this past week that it is reducing its recommended cooking temperature for pork muscle
cuts to 145° F internal temperature followed by a three minute rest time before carving or consuming.
To the uninitiated, this may seem like just another change to an innocuous government recommendation but the pork
industry believes it is a very big deal indeed as it removes one hurdle to consumers’ enjoying a better eating experience with
pork in general and fresh pork in particular. A copy of the National Pork Board’s new cooking guidelines is linked below. The guide can be downloaded from http://www.porkbeinspired.com.
The change, announced by USDA Under-Secretary for Food Safety Dr. Elizabeth Hagen, creates a uniform cooking temperature recommendation for all muscle cuts of meat (beef, pork, veal and lamb) and establishes a uniform three minute rest time recommendation for all cuts. The rest time is important as it allows heat to be conducted from hotter surface areas into the middle of a cut, pushing internal temperatures to the point that any pathogens which may be present are destroyed. It should be noted that USDA still recommends that ground meats be cooked to 160° internal temperature and that
all poultry be cooked to internal temperatures of 165°.
Why is this such a big deal? Pork has always carried a “there’s something in there that you have to kill” albatross
around its neck. The “something” that has caused generations of mothers and grandmothers to teach their daughters to cook pork until “it” was dead is trichinella spiralis, a parasite that was once relatively common in pigs. The larvae of trichinella spiralis was in the striated muscle tissue of their hosts and, if not destroyed by heat or freezing, could be passed on to any animal eating that muscle tissue. They then mature to adulthood in the intestines of the host and produce more larvae which make themselves at home in the muscle of the new host causing trichinosis, a disease characterized by fever and inflammatory pain.
The good news is that the incidence of trichanella spiralis in the U.S. pig population has fallen to virtually zero. One reason for that reduction is simply more and more vigilance by pork producers in controlling parasites. But a larger reason is the move from outdoor production systems which has eliminated most contact between pigs and wildlife, breaking a major transmission vector for trichinella spiralis.
Virtually all cases of trichinosis in the U.S. are now associated with consuming improperly prepared wild game meat, especially meat from bears and raccoons. The disease is so rare in pig populations that a USDA trichanella monitoring and eradication pilot project in the late 1990s had one major problem: It could find hardly any infected pigs.
While trichinella spiralis is the consumer perception problem that most commonly drives overcooking of pork, USDA’s new
recommendation was based on more than just trichinella. The change was made only when USDA was convinced that the lower temperature plus the three minute hold time were sufficient to kill a wide range of potential pathogens, including salmonella.
Pork has had few food safety issues and the industry wants to keep that track record intact. While lowering the recommended cooking temperature has some tangible product quality and eating experience benefits but those would mean little if the risk of food-borne illnesses was increased. Making that case for safety across the entire range of potential pathogens is one reason it took so long to get the change.
This is also an important action because modern pork is not nearly as forgiving when overcooked. Lean pork simply cannot withstand the overcooking that once was masked by higher external and internal fat content. The move to heavier-muscled, leaner hogs was driven by consumer demand as well as production economics. When fat and cholesterol concerns first hit U.S. consumer in the mid-1980s, pork demand fell by an average of 4.5 percent per year for five straight years. Pigs were getting
leaner and pork producers launched “The Other White Meat” campaign to highlight this product improvement and position the product closer to white meat chicken which was perceived to be the gold standard for “healthy” meat. In addition,
producers discovered that these lean pigs were more efficient in converting feed to gain, adding fuel to the movement to reduce fat cover and increase lean muscle content.
The “leaning” of pork really got rolling in the 1990s when better genetics, nutrition and breeding systems pushed fat content
lower and lower. But there was a price to pay. External fat cover and seam fat (ie. the fat deposited internally between muscles) was the focus of the leanness drive but selection for leanness with little attention paid to intramuscular fat
(ie. marbling, those little flecks of fat within muscles) led to lower intramuscular fat content and, in some cases,
bad eating experiences. Those experiences were made even worse by consumers who, based on grandma, mom and USDA’s 160° recommendation, continued to cook pork until “it” was dead.
The new National Pork Board’s new cooking guideline link: cook pork to 145 degrees