Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Don’t judge cooked meat by its color.

Just… don’t.

Everyone, myself included, does it. We look at the color of the inside of a burger or chicken to determine if it’s cooked. Is it pink? Nope. Chomp chomp!

Here’s the problem: Color is not a good indicator of safe cooking temperatures. You have to use a meat thermometer to be sure meat is cooked to safe temperatures.
Meat turns from pink to brown because the protein that makes meat red (myoglobin) is denatured as it is cooked. The protein is damaged and doesn’t reflect light in the same manner anymore, so the meat appears brown.
Lots of factors can affect how quickly or slowly the protein is denatured as it is heated. Meat color changes can vary due to the pH (acidity) of the meat, the age and gender of the animal, how long it was stored, the way it was packaged, whether it was frozen, even the feed and water of the animals can affect cooked meat color.

Sometimes meat turns brown too soon!

Meat scientists call this phenomenon Premature Browning. It can be really dangerous because meat looks done, but it hasn't been cooked to a safe temperature.

This photo is from a great fact sheet about beef color from the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association. Both of these patties were cooked to an unsafe temperature (55°C or 131°F). Patty A looks very undercooked, but patty B looks done.

I have a previous blog post about fresh meat color. Remember that we talked about meat being oxygenated (red), deoxygenated (purple), or oxidized (brown)? Researchers at Kansas State found that when patties were cooked in the oxidized (brown) state, their cooked color was brown, even at temperatures that were too low to kill deadly bacteria like E. coli and Salmonella. Other research has found that the packaging can cause meat to brown faster, too.

Regardless of why the meat turns brown at too low of a temperature, sometimes it happens. The best way to insure that your meat is cooked properly is to use a meat thermometer.
Ground beef should be cooked to 160°F and poultry should be cooked to 165°F.

Sometimes meat stays pink too long!

Meat scientists call this phenomenon Persistent Pinking. It is not as much a food safety issue as it is a perception and eating quality issue. When meat looks pink, even if it’s been thoroughly cooked, people will think it’s undercooked and will keep cooking it until its way overcooked. When it’s overcooked, it tastes terrible.
I am conducting research on persistent pinking in ground beef this summer. 
These patties were all cooked to exactly 160°F.
You can see how some of them are still pink in the middle.

Research has shown that a high pH (more basic) can protect the proteins at greater temperatures and keep them from turning brown. They may also stay pink because of a higher concentration of the myoglobin protein. Right now our research is creating more questions than answers, but it sure is interesting.

Persistent pinking can also be caused by outside substances interacting with the meat and creating the pink color.
Nitrites are a good example of one of these outside substances. Sometimes we want this pink color to appear, like in the case of ham, sausages, or bacon. However, very small amounts of nitrites can get into the meat (especially poultry) and create a pink color that kind of looks like ham. If you don’t expect the meat to be pink and it is, you may think it’s undercooked.

These pictures were sent to me by Dr. Jim Claus at the University of Wisconsin. He is one of the leading researchers in persistent pinking in processed meats. These are a pair of turkey slices and some tuna chunks with persistent pinking problems. All of these were cooked to a safe temperature, but some clearly have some color issues.

This is a pork chop that was cooked wrapped in bacon. Looks like the nitrites in the bacon seeped into the pork chop and created a pink color.

Sometimes the ovens that cook the meat can introduce gasses that react with the muscle and cause it to turn pink. We like it when this happens in smoked meats, but when you don’t expect it, you may be concerned it hasn’t been cooked enough.

This is a smoked sausage from an awesome BBQ restaurant in south Texas. See how the smoke has created the ring of pink around the edge of the sausage?

When you see pink color in meat, look to see where the off-color is within the pieces. Undercooked meat will be pink in the middle, but persistent pinking issues are more likely to occur on the surface.

Even what the animals (especially birds) eat or drink can introduce substances that can change the cooked color of their meat. Nitrates and nitrites that occur naturally in the feed and water can remain in the birds and create some color problems, especially around the bone.

This is another picture of some cooked chicken pieces from Dr. Claus. You can see some really severe pinking problems in them.

If you are served something that you think looks underdone, it’s OK to ask what temperature it was cooked to. Sometimes meat is just stubbornly pink, but sometimes it may actually be underdone. When it comes to my kids, if I think a piece of meat they've been served may be underdone, you bet I'll ask the waiter about it. 

The best way to know is to use a meat thermometer.
Cook it to a temperature not a color.

The USDA has a great fact sheet about meat color that gives more detail about persistent pinking and premature browning.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Microblogs: Ham vs. Lamb

The day before Easter, I surveyed my followers on social media on their preference of ham or lamb for Easter dinner.

According to my survey, more of you are eating ham today than lamb. Some chose beef. The reason we eat lamb today is pretty obvious. The lamb represents the sacrificial lamb of God.
But in the US many more of us will eat ham and I wanted to do a little research as to why. I secretly was hoping I would find that we ate ham at Easter because the pink color of ham matched our pretty pink Easter dresses and pink dyed eggs. But, probably not.
Some say that the tradition of ham at Easter goes back to pagan traditions associated with the celebrations of the Spring equinox, and others say that ham was eaten during this time because pork was considered a lucky meat by pre-Christian Europeans.
However, in the Ozarks and much of the rural US, the tradition of ham at Easter probably originated from the fact that pigs were slaughtered in the winter and the hams and shoulders were cured. The curing process in those days took many months, so the first hams were ready at Easter.
It really doesn't matter why we choose ham or lamb or beef, what matters is that we are taking the day to celebrate the Resurrection of Jesus with our families or (like we do it) with our church family.

After note: For lunch, Ed made a ham for church pot-luck and had a piece of it, but there is a man at our church that makes some awesome BBQ chicken, so that's what I had. 

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

The Underdog

I love Texas Country music (some folks call it Red Dirt music). I’ve loved it since I was in college; Musicians like Pat Green, Robert Earl Keen, Cross Canadian Ragweed, and the Randy Rogers Band have always filled my cd case and iTunes.

I really like Aaron Watson. He lives in Abilene, TX, which is about 45 minutes from where I grew up. He’s a Christian and a family man. Listening to his music is like a trip home. His latest album recently topped the Country music charts, but he gets virtually no play time on country radio (not that I listen to country radio, anyway). The irony of that fact is compounded in the name of the album, the Underdog. 

After I downloaded it, my productivity dropped because  I was dancing and beating my hands on my desk. :)

Several of my blogging buddies have decided to write a group blog with the Underdog theme. Honestly, as much as I love Aaron Watson, I wasn’t sure I was going to participate. I didn’t know how I would tie this theme into my blog about meat and the meat industry.

Then, this morning I was listening to National Public Radio (see, not country). A young woman who was having a hard time financially was being asked about her health. She was convinced that her health was failing because she could not afford to buy food at the farmers market.  It hit me.

She was my underdog.

I don’t know her story, and I doubt she’s heard of me, but I write my blog for all the underdogs like her.

Families all over this country are told that expensive, Organic, Natural foods are better and healthier for them.  When they can’t afford them, imagine the guilt they must feel when they buy and feed their families conventionally-raised foods without the fancy, Organic, grass-fed, or Natural labels.

Even if what I write helps just a few of these folks feel better about what they feed their families, then I’m happy and it’s been worth it.

  • I want to assure the young, single moms working for minimum wage that processed meats are a great way to get kids to eat protein when that’s all the protein they can afford.
  • I want the busy, soccer mom to know its ok to run through the drive through between soccer practice and music lessons. The food will be safe.
  • I want the label-reading-obsessed dad know what nitrites are, why they are used, and that they are safe and helpful.
  • I want the concerned grandma to know that all meat is free of antibiotics regardless of what’s on the label.
  • I want the mom with the newborn to know that no pork and poultry is raised with steroid hormones, and she can enjoy it worry-free.
  • I want everyone to understand the importance of food safety and meat thermometers.

Unfortunately, we live in a society full of judging and Mom guilt. Feeling guilty and judged sure makes you feel like an Underdog. When they can’t afford the food that everyone says they should feed their kids, or they’re too busy to get it prepared, or they just don’t understand all the hype, I hope my blog helps them to feel a little more confident about the decisions they make to feed their families.

I've always been one to root for the Underdog.

Other Underdog posts:

Dirt Road Charm

Dairy Carrie

Heim Dairy

Rural Gone Urban

Farming America

Friday, January 9, 2015

What’s in a food label? Uncured, naturally cured or no nitrate or nitrite added.

This year I’ve been working on a series of posts about food labels and what they mean. In earlier posts, I talked about what the Natural label means on a meat package, but I get some questions about Uncured, Naturally Cured or processed meat products that are made without nitrate or nitrite.
uncured salami package
I’ve covered this topic before in a post called ‘What is Nitrite?’, but I wanted to cover it again in the labeling series.
Some processors want to create friendlier, less chemically labels and choose to remove nitrates. Also, when meat processors want to use the Natural or Organic labels, they are not allowed to add nitrites and nitrates as they are classified by the USDA as chemical preservatives.

What if you just removed these ingredients from natural products?
Just take it out. Problem solved.

Some processors do that, but without nitrite, deli ham would not be pink, it would basically be just a pork roast. Tasty meats like bacon and hotdogs wouldn’t have the same flavors we enjoy. And, most importantly, all of these products would be more susceptible to spoilage and the growth of dangerous bacteria. The nitrite helps them last longer on store shelves and in your refrigerator. Nitrite also makes them safer for you and your family.

So, removing it doesn’t work.

What is nitrite anyway and what is its purpose in meat?

Nitrite is added to processed meats like ham, bacon, and sausages (hotdogs, bologna, etc) for 4 reasons:

1.       It prevents the growth of Clostridium botulinum (the bacteria that causes botulism). Botulism can shut down your nervous system and that’s not healthy. It also helps control other dangerous pathogens and bacteria that cause spoilage, so it helps keep meat safe.

2.       It is a very powerful antioxidant and keeps the meat from going rancid. The fat in processed meat can get funky flavors if allowed to oxidize, and nitrite helps to keep that from happening. Ever notice why a package of ham can last for weeks in your fridge while leftovers go bad in a few days?

3.       It gives cured meats their distinct pink color. The nitrite reacts with the muscle protein and changes it to pink, and it stays pink for a much longer time than fresh meat stays red.

4.       It gives cured meats their distinct flavor. That unique “hammy” and smoky flavor of a ham or that unique bacon flavor in bacon comes from the nitrite.

German researchers discovered that nitrite and
not nitrate (curing cousins) was the form of
curing salt responsible for meat curing, and
started to exclusively use nitrite for curing.
Also, without nitrite, several products would completely lose their identity. The USDA has standards of identity that regulate what is a hot dog, bologna, or even bacon and nitrite is an important ingredient for making them what they are. Without it, they are no longer “cured.” This means bacon without nitrite would no longer be bacon, but would instead be cooked pork belly.

How do “Natural” and “Cured” coexist?

Even though, nitrate and nitrite are not allowed to be directly added to natural and organic labeled meat products, other ‘natural’ ingredients with high levels of naturally-occurring nitrate can be used to replace the synthetic forms.

Many vegetables contain high levels of naturally accumulating nitrate. In fact, the main human dietary source of nitrate isn’t processed meats, but actually green leafy vegetables like spinach and celery. When the nitrate is converted to nitrite, presto… meat curing can naturally happen.

Meat processors can use vegetable powder in processed meats as a source of nitrite to create the pink color and cured flavor. On the label, it may be listed as celery powder, flavoring, or natural flavoring. The nitrite derived from vegetables and found in vegetable powder and in natural meats is exactly the same compound as that found in conventionally cured meats.

However, this substitution doesn’t replace all the nitrite needed to provide important quality and safety attributes. The final nitrite levels are lower and the vegetable powder may have to be limited because it can give the meat product its own flavors, too. These lower nitrate levels mean that the naturally cured meats are not as well protected from spoilage and pathogenic bacteria like Clostridium botulinum and Listeria monocytogenes. So, other steps must be taken to help keep the product safe. Meat processors add natural antimicrobial ingredients or use extra processes like high pressure processing to protect against spoilage and dangerous bacteria.

So what’s the difference, really?

Generally, natural meats are going to be more expensive because the ingredients that go into them are more expensive. However, when your dinner hits the table, natural and conventionally-cured meats should taste the same and both are safe and nutritious for your family.


For this post, I want to thank Dr. Jeff Sindelar from the University of Wisconsin for helping me explain all the nitrate/nitrite chemistry. Jeff and I have been buddies since graduate school, and he is a great meat scientist who has devoted his research to naturally-cured meats. You can see him talking about it in his Meat Myth Crusher video.





Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Christmas and Hunger

Last weekend I had an amazing experience. We drove 6 hours to Dallas to work in the Operation Christmas Child shoebox processing center. Operation Christmas Child is an arm of Samaritan’s Purse and collects personal, shoe-box sized gift boxes from Christians in the US (and other countries) and sends them to children in need in the developing world. We have participated in this program for 6 Christmases sending boxes, but this was our first opportunity to help process the boxes for OCC. In the 6 hours we worked, our team of about 9 or 10 people processed approximately 1300 boxes. We were one of at least 18 teams working, and a second shift went to work after we left. They expected to process over 600,000 boxes at that center this year and over 7 million boxes total.  It was such a rewarding experience.

Working at the Operation Christmas Child Processing
Center has been one of the highlights of my Christmas so far.
We even found some 4H stickers on some boxes.
Back to food…

With this season of giving and all the joy it brings, I can’t help but think of those who go without. Without food, without clothes, without enough money to buy gifts for their families. In Dallas this weekend, I saw several billboards about hunger and the people that suffer with hunger. I’ve been wanting to write a post about hunger for some time, I think God was telling me it was time.

Facts about hunger

The facts and figures on global hunger are staggering.

·         Hunger kills more people globally than AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis COMBINED

·         805 million people do not have enough food to live active healthy lives (That’s 1 in 9)

·         Poor nutrition causes nearly half (45%) of the deaths of children under 5.

·         In a world where 1 in 4 kids’ growth is stunted due to poor nutrition, adding one egg per day can increase a child’s height and weight by 50%.

But what I find even more amazing are the hunger statistics in developed countries like the US.

·         49 million Americans are food insecure

·         Almost 16 million children are food insecure nationally (about 1 in 5 US kids)

·         Arkansas tops the list in the percentage of food insecure households, followed by Mississippi, Texas, Tennessee, and North Carolina (hits a little too close to home, doesn’t it?)

·         In the US, 4.8 million seniors are food insecure (about 8%)

What can be done?

Obviously, you can give to your local food bank or food pantry. Kids have canned food drives all the time, and it’s really easy to send a few cans of green beans or corn. However, remember that the most expensive nutrient is protein. It may cost a little more to send canned chili or stew, meaty soups, tuna, pasta with meat balls, Vienna Sausages, or even peanut butter, but it will be much appreciated. Protein helps people fill fuller longer and helps kids learn.

Several lists of things food banks need have been making the rounds on social media, check out these from Second Harvest Food Bank, Buzz Feed, and KORD Radio. Of course, monetary donations can have a bigger impact than food because food banks can buy exactly what they need, and they can buy food at discounted prices.

Dairy farmers like my friend Carrie work with Feeding America to provide families local milk. You can donate to their cause with a simple text.

To combat global hunger, Heifer International gives people in developing countries livestock to raise for milk, eggs, and meat. For as little as $20 you can donate a flock of chickens or geese to a struggling community. One summer, our church raised enough money to purchase a heifer. Samaritan’s Purse has similar programs that give goats and other farm animals to families in need. This kind of giving empowers people to provide for themselves and stimulated the economy in the impoverished communities.

You can volunteer. Call the local food bank or food pantry to find out when they need helpers. Give time to the Salvation Army. Locally, we have Cobblestone Farm where food is grown to support hungry families in the community. Volunteers come throughout the year to plant, tend and harvest crops that given to local folks in need or sold to fund their other giving programs.

Don’t know where to look for volunteer opportunities? Try searching Volunteer Match.

The easiest way to help is to spread the word.
  • Talk about hunger.  
  • Share these statistics with you friends and family.  
  • Like and follow some of these groups on social media and share their message.

Awareness of the issue is the first step to starting to solve the problem.

I can’t imagine not having enough money to provide food for my kids, especially during Christmas. It just breaks my heart to think of people going through this joyous holiday season with the worry of not having enough to eat.

Think about ways you can help.

Share in the comments what you and your family do to combat hunger locally, nationally, and globally.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Packaging questions: Purge

It’s one of my most commonly-asked questions.

What is the deal with that blood or water in my package of meat?
Beef steaks and purge
Photo courtesy Macc Rigdon

When you take your tasty cut of meat out of the package, there is a pinkish liquid that is left behind. Most of the time, there is even a little soaker pad in the package to soak it up.

What is that stuff?

Short answer:

It’s a combination of water, lactic acid, and meat pigments that seeped out of the meat.

Longer answer:

Soaker pad in a chicken tray
In science class, we all learned that our bodies are largely made up of water. The same is true for animals, and a high percentage of that water is held in the muscles and stays in the muscle when it’s converted to meat.

Water in the meat is what creates the juiciness we experience when we eat a juicy steak, a tender ham, or a succulent turkey (#tokenthanksgivingreference). Water helps give meat the texture and flavor we expect. Meat without water is jerky, dry and tough.

Think of the proteins in meat as a sponge. As the meat ages and the more it is handled (cut, shipped, packaged, etc.), the protein sponge loses its ability to hold onto water. So, the water seeps out of the meat over time.

When the water seeps out, the protein that gives meat its color (myoglobin) flows out with the water. That protein gives the purge its color. Although it’s similar to the protein that gives blood its color (hemoglobin), it is not blood.

Pork chops in a purge loss study
Meat scientists have lots of
creative ways to measure purge
Photo courtesy Macc Rigdon
The ability of the meat to hang on the water is dependent on several different things, including the species and age of the animal, the fatness and grade of the meat, the length of time since the animal was harvested, which muscle the cut of meat was from, and how the meat has been handled and processed. Meat scientists spend hours and hours trying to figure out purge and what causes it.

Sometimes meat processors will add a solution to meat cuts to make them more tender, flavorful and juicy. That solution can change the amount of purge in a package, but the presence of purge does not automatically mean that water or anything has been added to the meat. Most of the time, purge is just a natural result of water leaving the muscle.

Some of the water in meat will evaporate out when it’s cooked. That’s why cooked meat is lighter in weight than raw. As the meat is cooked, the myoglobin will denature and lose its red color. So the juice that runs out of a rare steak may still be pink or red, but the juice from a cooked steak is colorless.

So, the water in meat packages is just purge, water and a little myoglobin. Maybe we should give it a better name.
Vacuum packaged pork with purge
Photo courtesy Macc Rigdon 


Something I learned from writing this blog: When you ask your meat-scientist friends to send you pictures of purge, be prepared to get a whole lot of them! I wasn’t pleased with my own photos, and a whole community of meat scientists responded when I sent out a request for pictures on facebook. Thanks, friends!

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

What’s in a food label? USDA

This week there has been a story circulating about a grocery store chain that was labeling their meat as USDA graded. My dad sent me a link to the story yesterday. You know you must write a post when your dad has a question, and I thought it fit into my labeling series.

According to the Washington Post story, the Giant supermarket chain was selling beef packages with the label “USDA Graded.” They were ordered to stop selling beef with that label, not because the claim was untrue, but because it was misleading.

What does USDA graded mean?

The USDA has two separate roles when it comes to evaluating the meat we buy in stores and restaurants.

1.       USDA Inspectors evaluate the animals before harvest and the carcasses and the meat afterwards for wholesomeness. I wrote a post about USDA Inspection last year. To be sold in interstate commerce, meat must be inspected by USDA. In my earlier post, I stated that when meat is inspected by USDA it either passes or fails. If it fails, it is discarded and not sold for human consumption.

2.       USDA Graders evaluate the meat for eating quality. They take into account the marbling in the ribeye, the color of the meat, and approximate the age of the animal and assign USDA grades, like Prime, Choice and Select, to the carcasses. Beef has another set of grades that indicates the lean meat to fat ratio of the carcass called Yield Grades, but it is rarely used in marketing to consumers.

USDA grading and inspection
USDA Inspectors and Graders both work for USDA, but their education and training is very different. Inspection is funded by the government, whereas meat processors pay a fee for grading.

According to USDA, over 75% of the meat that is inspected is also graded and assigned USDA grades of Prime, Choice, Select, etc. The packers can use these grades to market the carcasses according to their eating quality. Prime carcasses are worth more than Choice, Choice more than Select, and so on. 

When this store labeled its beef as ‘USDA graded’, all it means is that a USDA grader looked at the beef gave it a grade, but it doesn’t indicate what grade it was assigned. It’s kind of like a teacher grading your test. The teacher gave you a grade. It may be a good grade or a bad grade, but it wouldn’t make much sense to go around bragging that your test had been graded if you weren’t willing to share the grade with other people.

I'm not going to speculate why the store chose to label their beef as merely 'USDA graded.' Other stores use the label ‘USDA inspected,’ which I think is just as misleading. If meat is being sold, it is either USDA inspected or its state inspected. Otherwise, it would be against the law to sell it. Saying that meat is inspected is almost as pointless as saying it was graded.

I hope this clears up some of the confusion with this story.

Would you be interested to learn more about USDA grades?