Meat Safety 101

Seven steps to ensuring meat safety / Linda Jackson,

It’s that time of year again when you are planning your stokvel shopping spree.

Given that food safety has been in the media so much this year, with the listeriosis outbreak, food fraud and increased health inspections, now is also the right time to make sure you are on top of your own food safety issues.

Food safety is key to your business success. You want happy customers who enjoy their time with you and keep coming back for more! You can do this by making sure the food they eat is safe and does not make them sick. You would never do this intentionally but accidents can happen.

By proactively following these steps recommended by experts in food safety all around the world, you can ensure your customers will have a great meal and suffer no harmful side effects.

Meat and meat products are often the source of illnesses associated with food. With meat such an important part of your menu, you should take note of these important safety tips from start to finish when handling meat to make sure you don’t accidently cause harm to the customer.

1. Meat safety starts with your supplier

Although you might be tempted to go with the cheapest supplier thinking you will get more for every hard-earned rand, this is usually not the right choice.

Food safety problems with meat start on the farm. Sick animals can cause sickness in humans as the disease-causing bacteria can be in the blood and meat of the animal. Further problems can occur if the animal is not slaughtered correctly. The hide of the animal can come into contact with the meat, allowing disease-causing bacteria to spread to the meat. If the intestines of the animal are damaged during slaughter, this can result in manure contamination on the meat, which can also spread harm.

These risks can be managed, but you are not there to supervise the process to ensure your customer will be safe. That is the function of the law and the reason why you should be obtaining your meat from a registered abattoir. If the abattoir is registered, this means that the Department of Agriculture inspectors visit the abattoir regularly. The law also requires that an independent meat inspector is employed – this person acts as your eyes and ears at the abattoir and ensures unsafe meat is condemned so it cannot become human food. The inspectors also ensure the animals have not had medication for a certain period before they are slaughtered – this helps to ensure that your customers will not be consuming antibiotics that can be harmful to their health, too.

Although you may have grown up on a farm where slaughtering of animals was an everyday occurrence, remember that serving food to your customers places a much bigger burden of food safety responsibility on your shoulders. The choices you make about suppliers can literally mean the difference between life and death.

What should you do?

Insist on viewing the certificate of registration for the abattoir/supplier you purchase from. If you are using a wholesaler, ask them for proof of the registration of their suppliers. Most retail chains have auditors in place who also visit their suppliers to make sure food is safe on the retail shelves. Buying from a large retailer will mean there have already been checks done to keep you safe – this may mean the meat is slightly more expensive but it is a good investment in your customers’ health. Even butcheries where you buy meat must be registered with the municipality and you should see that certificate displayed as proof that they have the correct hygiene standards in place.

2. Selecting your meats

When you are out there buying, avoid choosing meats that have obvious discolouration or a strong odour. You should also avoid any meat packages that look damaged, so keep an eye out for tears, leaks, and other signs of contamination. If sealed meat packages contain any rips, the meat has likely been exposed to harmful bacteria from the air, from the people who handled it or from other unsafe foods. Again, the prices might be discounted but this will be a waste, as the taste of the meat will be affected if it is spoiled. Look out for specials on marinated meat – the marinade can disguise the smell and appearance of spoiled meat. Rather marinade yourself – that way you are on control of the end product and customer satisfaction.

Meat is graded according to certain legal standards. If you are buying the whole carcass and having it cut up, inspect the carcass yourself to see the grading stamps before the cutting process begins to make sure you are getting what you paid for.

What should you do?

Make sure you inspect the meat cuts carefully yourself before buying. Supervise the packing of your order if you can.

3. Transporting your meat

Your meat is not just a good food for your customers, it is also a great source of protein for harmful bacteria. Disease-causing bacteria, even if there are only a few, can multiply in the right conditions. Too many of them entering our bodies can cause food poisoning or food-borne illness. Your job, therefore, is to make sure there are as few as possible at all times. One of the most important ways of doing this is keeping meat cold as these harmful bacteria can only grow above 5°C.

Plan your trip carefully as the total trip time from picking up the meat to putting it in your freezer should be no more than four hours. In winter, keeping to that temperature is usually not a problem. If you will be carrying the boxes in the taxi with you, the heater can cause a problem. Take a blanket with you to spread over the boxes to reduce sweating.

In the summer, take one or more good-quality cooler boxes. Meat will stay cold for 1½ to 2 hours in a cooler box if it is completely wrapped with some ice packs on top of it. Move it into a freezer as soon as possible.

If the meat is delivered to you, make sure a refrigerated vehicle is used. The back of a bakkie is not going to help you with keeping meat safe. The vehicle should also not be used for any non-food items that can taint your meat. 

4. Storing meat

Uncured raw meat generally lasts safely for around three days in a refrigerator before it starts to go bad, but that can vary depending on the type of meat and how it was handled before you purchased it. If you want to make it last longer, you need to freeze it promptly. If you seal it in an airtight package before freezing, then it should be safe for several months. You should write the date you bought the meat and the type on the packet if the packages are not already labelled.

Keep your freezer as close to -18°C as possible to help retain nutrients and keep the food fresh. Do not overfill the freezer as this will slow down the rate of freezing. Check the packages the next day and rotate them to make sure they freeze completely as quickly as possible.

What should you do?

Invest in a good-quality kitchen thermometer to be able to check your fridge and freezer temperatures. You can also use this for checking the temperature of your foods during cooking, as you will see later.

If packets are not labelled with a "best before" date, you can use this table to help you:

Type of meat
Safe storage times (in the refrigerator  5°C maximum)
Safe storage times (in the freezer -18°C if possible, and no warmer than  -12°C)

uncooked poultry
1–2 days
9 months (pieces) to 1 year (whole)

uncooked ground meat
1–2 days
3–4 months

uncooked steaks or chops
3–4 days
4–12 months, depending on the item

uncooked fish
1–2 days
6 months

cooked poultry, meat, or fish
3–4 days
2–6 months

hot dogs and lunch meat
up to 1 week (open package) or 2 weeks (closed package)
1–2 months

5. Preventing freezer burn

Have you ever opened your freezer to pull out a steak and seen that it’s brown and shrivelled up on one side? The last thing you want is to affect the quality of the meat you have bought by storing it incorrectly. You should note that keeping anything in the freezer too long will inevitably dry out so you should rotate freezer items so that you’re eating the older stuff first. 

It is important to prevent meat from drying out as this will slow the freezer burn. You can wrap it twice if you know something will be in the freezer for a while. Remove excess air from packaging by rolling down a bag or squeezing as much air out as you can and then sealing it. You can also make sure the packages are completely filled so that very little air is left inside. Remember the containers from the shops are meant to showcase the food and allow you to transport it home. They were not designed for long-term storage. Unwrap and re-package those items using the tips above. 

Keep it cold as a “warm” freezer will cause more freezer burn than a colder one. Keep the freezer full without overfilling. A full freezer works in two ways: first, you’re paying to keep your food cold and not the air; second, cold food keeps both the freezer cold and other foods frozen. The food begins to act like an ice pack!  Be sure, though, not to add too much not-yet-frozen foods to the freezer at one time. 

What do we do with freezer-burned food?

You can use freezer-burned meat but aim for dishes that will have the meat mixed up with other things, like soups or casseroles. Remember that the meat will be dry, so it will need added moisture. It is more difficult to refresh dried-up chicken, but it can be somewhat camouflaged with other flavours and textures.

6. Handling meat in your kitchen

Remember, bacteria can spread quickly between your hands and the meat, and vice versa, so wash your hands thoroughly with soap and warm water for at least 30 seconds after handling meat of any kind. Raw chicken can be particularly dangerous, as poultry is known for carrying salmonella.

When cooking with raw meat, wash your hands as soon as you’re done physically touching the meat. Don’t handle any other cooking implements or ingredients before you’ve washed your hands. Even a quick touch can transfer dangerous bacteria onto other foods or utensils.

You should also make sure to prepare and handle meat on a surface separate from other cooking materials. Keep vegetables and other ingredients away from the raw meat, especially if they’re not being cooked together. Use a separate cutting board and clean all utensils after they’ve touched raw meat. Using different coloured chopping boards will help you control this even better. Always use RED for meat, YELLOW for chicken and GREEN for vegetables you are not going to cook, like salads. Raw meat can contaminate these ready-to-eat foods and make your guests very ill.

Don’t be tempted to wash the meat. This allows those disease-causing bacteria to be transferred all around your kitchen so they can then potentially contaminate other foods, dishes, cloths and even your hands. Cooking the meat properly will kill them so rather leave them right where they are until cooking takes place.

7. Cooking temperatures and meat safety

The cooking temperature affects both the taste and safety of meat. Customers may have their own preferences, such as rare to well done. These terms actually refer to the temperature at the centre of the meat, which is best checked using a meat thermometer. You should have at least one in your restaurant.

Typical cooking temperatures are:

  • Rare: 48.9–51.7°C
  • Medium: 60–62.8°C
  • Well done: 73.9°C or higher

From a safety perspective, hotter temperatures at the centre of the meat are safer. However, safe cooking temperatures vary for different types of meat.

  • Poultry: 74°C for whole or ground poultry. Poultry should never be eaten rare. Undercooked poultry can spread salmonella and other diseases. You should always cook it thoroughly.
  • Ground meats: 72°C for ground meats such as beef, pork, and lamb. While whole cuts of meat typically have most bacteria on their surfaces, ground meats such as mince, wors and patties may have bacteria mixed throughout. Therefore, they must be cooked to a higher temperature than whole cuts of meat.
  • Whole meat: 63°C and the meat should be allowed to rest for at least three minutes before eating. The resting time gives the heat more time to kill any bacteria in steak, chops and roasts.
  • Pork should always be cooked to at least the high end of medium (63°C) because it can carry potentially dangerous worms and parasites.
  • Fin fish: 63°C or until the flesh is opaque and separates easily.

What do you do?

Don’t take shortcuts when cooking as this step will ensure meat is safe when eaten. Always use separate dishes for raw meat and cooked meat to make sure you don’t re-contaminate the cooked meats before you serve them. Cover cooked meat to protect it from flies that carry disease-causing bacteria. Serve it as soon as possible. If you are preparing in advance, make sure you keep the meat as hot as possible and rather don’t cook too much ahead of time.

Food safety – it’s in your hands

By proactively following these steps recommended by experts in food safety all around the world, you can ensure your customers will have a great meal and suffer no harmful side effects. This will safeguard your reputation and make sure those customers keep coming back for more.

It just makes sense, doesn’t it?