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November Cartoon: Why You Should Never Wash Raw Meat
Germs ride water droplets from raw meat

When it comes to food safety, you might think that the more washing, the better. Unfortunately, this misconception can mislead both food workers and everyday home cooks alike. It’s true that washing fruits and vegetables is important for removing hazards. However, washing raw meat actually spreads pathogens around your sink and kitchen.

Why We Wash Produce

Pathogens that cause foodborne illness are not typically naturally occurring in fresh produce. But fruits and vegetables can become contaminated with pathogens during growing and distribution. For example, fertilizers or other contaminants could be introduced into agricultural fields. Grocery workers or other customers could touch the food with dirty hands. For this reason, harmful pathogens like Listeria monocytogenes can be on the surface of fruits and vegetables. However, you don’t need to deep clean your produce with soapy detergents or sanitizers. A thorough rinse with clean running water will ensure that it is properly washed. Be sure to remove visible dirt and residue. According to the CDC, washing fruits and vegetables with soap or commercial produce wash is not recommended.

Dangers of Washing Raw Meat

Raw meat often contains very high levels of hardy pathogens like Salmonella and Campylobacter. If you rinse meat under running water, the pathogen-loaded water could easily spread to other places. It might splash over the sink, your counter, and other food-contact surfaces. That creates a much higher risk of foodborne disease. One study cited by NPR found that bacteria can launch up to 3 feet away from where raw meat is rinsed. What’s more, there is no evidence to suggest that rinsing off meat significantly reduces the amount of pathogens on its surface. That’s why the USDA-required "safe handling instructions" that come with every package of meat never direct consumers to wash the meat.

How to Reduce Illness Caused by Raw Meat

Even though you shouldn't wash meat, you can still reduce its biological hazards. Avoid cross-contamination by keeping raw meat separated from other foods. Also, don’t use the same utensils for handling raw meat and ready-to-eat foods. Store raw meat below other foods so meat juices don’t drip onto other foods. Since raw meat is a TCS food, make sure not to leave it in the Temperature Danger Zone (41-135°F) for longer than four hours. Most importantly, cook the meat to the appropriate temperature. Cooking will destroy its most common pathogens. Heating meat to a high enough temperature is the number one way that you can make sure the meat is safe to eat. To be sure the internal temperature is high enough, use a food thermometer.

These guidelines will help you safely prepare food in your workplace or home kitchen. Here are some additional resources to help you keep yourself and others healthy and happily enjoying your favorite foods:

Do you want comprehensive training on the best food safety practices for your home or foodservice establishment? Check out StateFoodSafety’s Food Safety for Home Kitchens course or our state-of-the-art food handler training.

—Diana Shelton

Download/print cartoon: Washing Raw Meat

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