Pink pork

Pork: now the other pink meat?

That could be pork’s new slogan after the USDA recently lowered its safe cooking temperature to 62 C (145 F), from the longtime standard of 71 C (160 F). The new recommendation is in line with what many cookbook authors and chefs have been saying for years.

It was a momentous day in meat cookery: the US Department of Agriculture has lowered the recommended minimum cooking temperature of pork by 15 F or 9.5C. That may not seem worth a crackling to many, but to pork chefs it is a victory of the light over ancient forces of prejudice and ignorance. David Chang, the two Michelin-starred chef / proprietor of Manhattan’s Momofuku restaurants declared in the New York Times the death of a terrible dogma: “Everyone thought the sun revolved around the earth, too.”

The revolution is that science has overcome misguided fears about the inherent dirtiness of pigs: the key disease associated with them, trichinosis, appears to have been wiped out in US pork production, mainly because most pigs are raised indoors and chemicals have largely dealt with the parasites.

The agency said that after pork hits the target internal temperature, it should be allowed to rest for three minutes, while its temperature rises a few more degrees. That should be enough to kill any harmful bacteria, but the meat should be juicy and may look pink. The same temperature guidelines already apply to whole cuts of beef, lamb and veal.

Other recommendations are unchanged. Ground pork, beef, lamb and veal should be cooked to 160 C, the agency said, and poultry should be cooked to 165 C.

“Finally, people from the USDA start cooking themselves, and they realise that if you have a lean piece of meat it gets tough and dry,” at the higher temperature, said Jacques Pépin, an American chef and cookbook author.

Pépin said that the 145-degree recommendation was fine for leaner cuts like a pork loin, but that cuts with more fat would often be braised longer and reach higher temperatures. “People are crazy about pork belly,” he said. “It has to be cooked for hours and hours…”

Nathan Myhrvold, an author of “Modernist Cuisine”, said the Department of Agriculture had long had an attitude that he described as “very paternalistic, father knows best, we can’t let those dumb consumers know the real thing.” The new guidelines, he said, are closer to what regulators have long told chefs and food manufacturers.

Cooking pork safely: the science

Authoritative advice on cooking pork safely from the chefs’ new bible, Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking (Taschen, £400)

Misconceptions about pork (volume 1, chapter 3)

The “safe” temperature for cooking pork is one of the most misunderstood – and distorted – aspects of food safety. Numerous so-called authorities or experts recommend massively overcooking pork. Why pork? The usual reason given is the danger of contamination with the roundworm Trichinella spiralis.

This assertion is misleading for several reasons, as discussed below. Most importantly, improvements in pork farming and processing practices have virtually eliminated Trichinella contamination in commercially produced pork in developed countries. One study showed that only eight cases of trichinellosis (also called trichinosis) could be attributed to pork grown commercially in the United States between 1997 and 2001. During that same period, the American population consumed about 32 billion kg / 70 billion 1b of pork. That’s an awful lot of pork to generate only eight cases of trichinellosis.

Trichinellosis from wild game (mostly bear meat) and from non-commercially raised pork was also very rare: just 64 cases over five years, for a total from all sources of 72 cases. This is such a low incidence for a country of more than 300 million people that trichinellosis ranks among some of the rarest diseases known to medicine. When it does occur, the disease is neither fatal nor serious, and is easily treatable. It is hard to see what all the fuss is about; there are far more common and more serious public health threats than trichinellosis.

The alarmism also ignores two other points. First, most commercial pork is frozen to kill the parasite. Second, and perhaps more surprising, Trichinella is very easy to kill with a low heat.

The FDA cooking regulations for eliminating Trichinella include temperatures as low as 49C / 120F, albeit maintained for 21 hours. (The main reason to cook at temperature that low is to process ham in the style of a “raw” ham). The regulations do not even bother to list temperatures higher than 62C / 144F because the time required to eliminate the parasite would be less than a second.

The FDA 2009 Food Code makes no special recommendations at all for cooking pork. Instead it suggests using the FDA’s time-and-temperature table for whole-meat roasts for all meats.

Other pathogens that can infect pigs, such as Salmonella, are not unique to pork – another reason why the FDA Food Code does not require a different standard for it. The cooking recommendations in the FDA time-and-temperature table will destroy Salmonella to the 6.5D level in any meat, including pork. Yet most information sources for consumers, including the USDA website and the National Pork Board, recommend a cooking temperature of 71C / 160F, which is laughably high. Dry, overcooked pork is the inevitable result, particularly when leaner cuts are cooked at this temperature.

Why does this mistake persist? Exaggerated concern about Trichinella is clearly one factor. So is the failed strategy of relying on temperature only. A desire to maintain the status quo may also play a role; once you’ve taught people that pork needs to be overcooked, it takes some courage to change course, particularly if it means admitting you’ve made a mistake.

In the authors’ experience, convincing chefs that pork has no special cooking requirements compared with those for beef or other meat can be a difficult feat. Showing them the FDA Food Code provokes statements such as, “But that must be wrong!” Cookbook authors have less of an excuse for perpetuating this travesty. Many have repeated the silly claims about 71C / 160F for years without bothering to check technical sources to verify the facts.