The Science of Not Washing Meat Before Cooking

For many households around the world, washing meat before cooking is a deeply ingrained practice, believed to cleanse the product of any potential bacteria or contaminants. However, according to food safety experts, including those at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Australian Food Safety Information Council washing raw meat does not kill bacteria but instead poses risks of cross-contamination.

This article delves into the science behind this counterintuitive recommendation, exploring the nature of bacteria, the potential risks of washing meat, and effective ways to ensure food safety.

The Nature of Bacteria and Pathogens on Meat

The surface of raw meat, including chicken, beef, and pork, can harbor various types of bacteria and pathogens. Common culprits include Salmonella, Campylobacter, E. coli, and Listeria, all of which can cause foodborne illness. These microorganisms can be present due to various factors such as the animal's health, slaughtering and processing conditions, or handling and storage practices. However, it's important to note that the presence of bacteria does not necessarily mean that the animal was sick or the meat is unsafe to eat.

Bacteria are microscopic, single-celled organisms that can survive in diverse environments, including extreme temperatures. Most bacteria are harmless, and some are even beneficial. However, the ones of concern when dealing with raw meat are the disease-causing, or pathogenic, bacteria.

Such bacteria can pose serious risks, especially to young children, pregnant women, older adults and the immunocompromised.

Pathogenic bacteria can't be seen, smelled, or tasted, and contrary to what many people think, rinsing raw meat will not remove them. These bacteria tightly attach themselves to the meat and can't be washed away by water. In fact, the only reliable way to kill these bacteria is by cooking the meat to the recommended internal temperature.

The Risks of Washing Raw Meat

When raw meat is rinsed in the sink, water can easily splash, causing microscopic droplets carrying bacteria to land on nearby surfaces, utensils, or food— a process known as cross-contamination. Cross-contamination can lead to the spread of bacteria to ready-to-eat foods or clean utensils, increasing the risk of foodborne illness.

Another risk involves the spread of bacteria within your sink, which could contaminate other foods or dishes that come into contact with the sink. Cleaning the sink immediately after washing meat can help, but it's easy to miss small droplets or splashes, especially if they've landed far from the sink.

Effective Ways to Ensure Food Safety

Given that washing meat can potentially spread bacteria rather than remove them, what are the best practices to ensure food safety? The most effective method to eliminate bacteria on meat is cooking it to the right temperature. Using a food thermometer, you should cook most whole cuts of meat to an internal temperature of 145°F (63°C) and ground meats to 160°F (71°C). Poultry, including chicken and turkey, should be cooked to an internal temperature of 165°F (74°C).

Proper handling and storage are also critical. Always store raw meat separately from other food in your refrigerator, ideally in a sealed container, to prevent any juices from contaminating other items. Use separate cutting boards and utensils for raw meat and other foods, and wash your hands thoroughly after handling raw meat.

Drexel University researchers  have shown that it is best to move meat and poultry straight from package to pan or pot, since the heat required for cooking will kill any bacteria that may be present.

A Paradigm Shift for Food Safety

Understanding the science behind not washing meat before cooking requires a shift in thinking for many people, but the goal remains the same: to keep ourselves and our families safe from foodborne illness. By focusing on effective strategies such as proper cooking, handling, and storage, we can ensure food safety without the risks associated with washing meat.

It's crucial to follow safe handling practices and store raw meat separately from other food in your refrigerator and ensure it's well wrapped or in a sealed container.

By adjusting our practices and spreading awareness, we can help reduce the incidence of foodborne illness and foster a culture of safety in the kitchen.