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How to Handle Pork Safely

Pork chop grilling on barbecue

Pork was first introduced to the United States in the early 16th century, when the explorer Hernando de Soto brought hogs to Florida.

It gained an important place in the United States diet in the 1800s, when manufacturers began salting pork to help it last longer. At that time, salt pork became the country’s staple food.

Today, pork continues to hold a significant place among meats. According to the USDA, the average person ate about 49.6 total pounds of pork during the year 2009 in the United States. That’s almost one pound every week!

Pork’s prevalence in Texas barbecue

Pork plays an important role in Texas barbecue. Although different regions of the state tend to use different meats in their barbecue, beef and pork are the most common meats used in Texas barbecue overall.

The USDA identifies four basic cuts of pork:

  1. The shoulder can be turned into a roast, a steak, or ground pork. It’s also used to make ham and pulled pork.
  2. Bacon and spare ribs, also known as back ribs, come from a side cut of pork.
  3. A loin cut provides roasts, tenderloin, country style ribs, and pork chops.
  4. Finally, the leg is used to create both raw and cooked hams.

You probably recognized most, if not all, of the foods that come from these cuts. When ordering pork products for a commercial establishment, make sure you always go through an approved supplier. Approved suppliers are required to meet certain standards that help prevent foodborne germs.

Natural pathogens found in pork

Some illness-causing germs are found in animals naturally, and hogs are no exception. Pork can be a source of Trichinella spiralis, E. coli, Salmonella, Staphylococcus aureus, Yersinia enterocolitica, and Listeria monocytogenes.

Each of these pathogens can cause someone to get sick. Most people recover from foodborne illness on their own, but in serious cases, they may need to get medical care. In the worst cases, people with foodborne illness may be admitted to the hospital or even die.

The good news is that you can help prevent foodborne illness. All you have to do is follow a few simple food safety practices when you’re barbecuing. We’ll go through them one by one below.

Storing pork safely

Let’s start with how you should store pork to prevent it from becoming contaminated. First off, always store pork in the fridge or freezer. Cold temperatures help slow bacterial growth.

Second, where you store pork in the fridge matters. Organize the shelves by cooking temperature, with food items that require the most cooking at the bottom.

For example, the FDA recommends that most cuts of pork be cooked to an internal temperature of 145°F. Ground pork is the only exception; the FDA recommends cooking it to 155°F.

Imagine you already have raw chicken and salad ingredients in the refrigerator. The cooking temperature for raw chicken is 165°F, while salad ingredients typically don’t need to be cooked at all.

In this situation, you should keep the salad ingredients on the top shelf, pork in the middle, and chicken on the bottom. That way, if any of the pork juices drip down onto the chicken — potentially contaminating it with germs — you know the chicken will be cooked to a high enough temperature to kill the germs.

Thawing pork safely

Never thaw frozen pork, or any other kind of raw meat, at room temperature. Germs thrive at room temperature, and when you leave pork out to thaw, you leave it vulnerable to bacterial growth.

The safest and easiest way to thaw pork is in the fridge. This is particularly true if you’re thawing a large cut of meat. When thawing pork in the fridge, plan for it to take about one day for every five pounds of food.

If you can’t wait for pork to thaw in the fridge, you can use the cold running water method. This method involves submerging the pork in running water that’s 70°F or less. It requires a little more attention, not to mention more water, but it also thaws frozen meat faster. Plan on about 30 minutes per pound of meat.

If the pork cut is small enough to fit, you can also use the microwave to thaw frozen pork. Or if you’re cooking ground pork, you could thaw it during the cooking process.

Pork cooking temperatures

When cooking raw cuts of pork, especially large cuts like pork butt, barbecuers typically go for a “low and slow” process. Cooking large cuts of raw meat on low temperatures for a long period of time helps make sure the outside doesn’t get overcooked while the inside is heating up to the proper cooking temperature.

As previously mentioned, most cuts of pork, including pork tenderloin and pork chops, should reach an internal temperature of 145°F before they’re declared done. The USDA also recommends letting pork rest for at least three minutes before carving or serving it.

There are several different cooking methods you can use to cook pork “low and slow.” The key is to choose a method that applies heat indirectly to the meat, which helps keep the outside of the cut from cooking faster than the inside.

Using a smoker is a popular way of barbecuing meat. Texas barbecue tends to use four main types of wood: hickory, oak, pecan, and mesquite. Each type of wood contributes a unique flavor, and there’s no “right” type — which one you use likely depends on your personal preference or the personal preference of whoever developed your menu.

Whatever cooking method you use, make sure to follow two cardinal rules: never rinse pork before cooking (this can spread germs to your sink and counter) and always cook it to recommended temperatures.

Reheating and hot-holding

Whenever you prepare a pork dish that won’t be eaten right away, it’s likely it will be kept in hot-holding. That means you’ll store it in a steam table or other equipment designed to keep food warm. Maybe you work at a buffet, or it’s standard practice to prepare a certain number of popular menu items ahead of time.

When you transfer the food to the hot-holding equipment, don’t put the new food on top of old food. Instead, keep it separate or replace the old bin entirely. This will help prevent any germs that may have gotten on the old food from contaminating the new food.

Use a holding time and temperature log to help you keep track of hot-holding temperatures. Hot-held food should stay above 135°F at all times. Check it regularly with a food thermometer to make sure it stays warm.

If you’re reheating leftover pork for hot-holding, make sure to use equipment that will heat the food to an internal temperature of 165°F within two hours, even though the original cooking temperature was less than that. Never use hot-holding equipment to reheat food — it won’t heat food quickly enough to keep foodborne germs within safe levels.

Managing leftovers

Cooked meat dishes typically last about 3–4 days in the refrigerator or 2–6 months in the freezer. Whenever you have leftover pork, make sure to label it with a use-by date so it’s clear when it should be used.

Another great way of managing leftovers is to arrange your storage shelves according to the FIFO method (First In, First Out). Essentially, this means putting newer food items in the back of the fridge or freezer. That way, the first container you grab off the shelf is the oldest. This will help you reduce food waste.

In summary, pork is an important part of the United States diet — and Texas barbecue in particular. When you follow good food safety practices, you will help kill the germs that occur naturally in pork and prevent foodborne illness.

For more information, check out our online Texas Food Handlers training course.

— Jessica Pettit

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