I was on vacation recently when a waiter asked a question that took me by surprise. When I requested red snapper, he said, “How would you like that cooked?” I would have expected that question for beef or tuna, but snapper? I thought there were only two possibilities—cooked or raw.
In fact, I was under the impression that almost every meat came in one of these two preparations. Seafood, chicken, pork—they’re either done, or they’re not, right? Technically you can eat about anything raw. There are entire diets and lifestyle systems devoted to eating only raw food—including meat. Enthusiasts claim that raw food is more nutritious, since the essential vitamins haven’t been cooked out, and that it’s closer to the ancestral diet that our digestive system evolved to handle. There’s nothing inherently unsafe about raw meat, and although Western palates consider it unsavory, some Asian cuisines feature raw chicken and pork. The thing that makes some raw meats dangerous is the likelihood of contamination by bacteria or pathogens. Some parasites, bacteria, viruses, and other disease-causing agents thrive in animals that we use as food. We don’t cook meat to make it inherently more palatable or healthy; we cook in order to kill any germs that may be lingering.
Cooked to Inspection
Chicken is a dangerous meat to eat raw, because it’s more likely than other meats to carry pathogens. Consumer Reports tested conventional broiler chickens, and found that about 83 percent harbored campylobacter or salmonella, the two main bacteria affecting poultry. Because factory-farmed chickens live in close quarters and live in close vicinity to other birds’ droppings, they are more likely to contract easy-to-spread salmonella, but organic or cage-free birds are susceptible as well. Be careful even when handling raw chicken, since dirty hands or bad food safety practices can spread contaminants. To ensure that bacteria have been killed, all poultry should be cooked to an internal temperature of 165° F.
Another dangerous raw food is freshwater fish. Eating this raw puts one at risk for parasites such as tapeworms, which thrive in fresh water. Toxins from cities or factories can also make their way into the fresh water supply, contaminating fish from lakes or rivers. To kill parasites and microorganisms, the USDA recommends that fish be cooked to at least 145° F. Many people never get the chance to eat wild game such as elk, wild boar, moose, or venison, but any wild game should also be cooked before eating, in order to reduce the risk of the parasite trichinosis.
The Raw Truth
Trichinosis is usually associated with pork products, but because of new ways of feeding and farming pigs, the parasite has been mostly wiped out in the United States. Trichinosis infections used to be very common, but the CDC reports that since 1997, only about twelve cases are reported per year. Raw pork should still be treated apprehensively, but eating a slightly-undercooked pork chop is not nearly as dangerous as eating raw game or chicken.
When people think of raw meat, they usually think of beef. Although the USDA still recommends that all beef be cooked to a minimum of 145° F, beef is often eaten raw with no adverse effects. The main bacteria found in beef is E. coli, which occurs naturally in human and animal digestive tracts, and the likelihood of beef being contaminated with a virulent form of E. coli or another bacteria is very slim when compared to other meats. Ordering a rare steak doesn’t usually pose a problem for healthy adults, although children, the immunocompromised, and the elderly are encouraged to request their meat more well done. Despite the popularity of steak tartare, however, ground beef is more likely to be contaminated, since it is more likely to have picked up bacteria during processing, contains meat from numerous cows, and the increased surface area of the meat gives bacteria more places to live.
Saltwater fish are also considered moderately safe to eat raw, and the popularity of sushi, sashimi, and raw oysters show that most people consider them harmless. Saltwater fish are actually safer than freshwater fish because the salt water hinders most bacterial growth. Also, most raw saltwater fish are eaten extremely fresh, so bacteria don’t have a chance to build up. Illnesses caused by shellfish are usually a result of human contamination or improper handling of raw food. The most dangerous shellfish are mollusks like clams and oysters, which are filter feeders and tend to accumulate toxins and bacteria from the water.
USDA Says Better Safe Than Sorry
Millions of people eat raw or undercooked beef or shellfish each year without incident. The USDA’s official position, however, is that all meat should be cooked thoroughly to lessen the risk of food borne illness. Remember, though, that just as not all cooked meat is safe, not all raw meat is dangerous. Because preparation is such a big part of food contamination, many people only choose to eat undercooked meat at fine restaurants or at home, where they can be sure that the food was handled properly.
If you’re someone who prefers to stay on the safe side, remember that a meat’s color does not always indicate its doneness. For hamburgers, steak, and fresh pork, a pink color (which usually indicates cooking to “medium”) can remain even after they’ve been cooked to the minimum safe temperature, and a meat thermometer is the only way to accurately tell if it’s been cooked enough.
Despite the claims by raw food enthusiasts, anthropologists have never uncovered a civilization that subsisted solely on raw food. The gastronomically adventurous among us may enjoy a rare stake or a delicious piece of sushi, but cooking seems to be a part of our DNA. To eat raw meat is to eat at your own risk.