CME: Importance of Pork Cooking Temperature

US - In the culmination to a years-long campaign by pork producers and processors, the latest major push of which began in 2006, USDA announced that it is reducing its recommended cooking temperature for pork muscle cuts to 145° F internal temperature followed by a three minute rest time before carving or consuming, write Steve Meyer and Len Steiner.
calendar icon 26 May 2011
clock icon 5 minute read

To the uninitiated, this may seem like just another change to an innocuous government recommendation but the pork industry believes it is a very big deal indeed as it removes one hurdle to consumers’ enjoying a better eating experience with pork in general and fresh pork in particular. A copy of the National Pork Board’s new cooking guidelines appears on page 2 (please see link below). The guide can be downloaded by clicking here.

The change, announced by USDA Under-Secretary for Food Safety Dr. Elizabeth Hagen, creates a uniform cooking temperature recommendation for all muscle cuts of meat (beef, pork, veal and lamb) and establishes a uniform three minute rest time recommendation for all cuts. The rest time is important as it allows heat to be conducted from hotter surface areas into the middle of a cut, pushing internal temperatures to the point that any pathogens which may be present are destroyed. It should be noted that USDA still recommends that ground meats be cooked to 160° internal temperature and that all poultry be cooked to internal temperatures of 165°.

Why is this such a big deal? A bit of history is in order.

Pork has always carried a “there’s something in there that you have to kill“ albatross around its neck. The “something“ that has caused generations of mothers and grandmothers to teach their daughters (and sons!) to cook pork until “it“ (and the pork itself, in most opinions!) was dead is trichinella spiralis, a parasite that was once relatively common in pigs. The larvae of trichinella spiralis encyst themselves in the striated muscle tissue of their hosts and, if not destroyed by heat or freezing, can be passed on to any animal eating that muscle tissue. They then mature to adulthood in the intestines of the host and produce more larvae which make themselves at home in the muscle tissue of this new host causing trichinosis, a disease characterized by fever and inflammatory pain.

The good news is that the incidence of trichanella spiralis in the US pig population has fallen to virtually zero. One reason for that reduction is simply more and more vigilance by pork producers in controlling parasites. But a larger reason is the move from outdoor production systems to confinement systems. That change has eliminated most contact between pigs and wildlife, breaking a major transmission vector for trichinella spiralis. Those big, bad “factory farms“ that activists rail against have some VERY POSITIVE impacts on consumers.

Virtually all cases of trichinosis in the US are now associated with consuming improperly prepared wild game meat, especially meat from bears and raccoons. The disease is so rare in pig populations that a USDA trichanella monitoring and eradication pilot project in the late 1990s had one major problem: It could find hardly any infected pigs.

The second reason that this is an important action is that modern pork is not nearly as forgiving when overcooked. Lean pork simply cannot withstand the overcooking that once was masked by higher external and internal fat content.

The move to heavier-muscled, leaner hogs was driven by consumer demand as well as production economics. When fat– and cholesterol-phobia first hit US consumer in the mid-1980s, pork demand fell by an average of 4.5 per cent per year for 5 straight years. Pigs were getting leaner and pork producers launched “The Other White Meat“ campaign to highlight this product improvement and position the product closer to white meat chicken which was perceived to be the gold standard for “healthy“ meat. In addition, producers discovered that these lean pigs were MUCH more efficient in converting feed to gain, adding fuel to the drive to reduce fat cover and increase lean muscle content. The “leaning“ of pork really got rolling in the 1990s when better genetics, nutrition and breeding systems pushed fat content lower and lower.

But there was a price to pay. External fat cover and seam fat (ie. the fat deposited internally between muscles) was the focus of the leanness drive but selection for leanness with little attention paid to intramuscular fat (ie. marbling, those little flecks of fat within muscles) led to lower intramuscular fat content and, in some cases, bad eating experiences. Those experiences were made even worse by consumers who, based on grandma, mom and USDA’s 160° recommendation, continued to cook pork until “it“ was dead.

The authors believe lower satisfaction with product quality is one reason that the price of loins relative to the value of the pork carcass declined sharply from 1998 to 2004 and, perhaps, again since 2009. Other factors are at play, of course, but today’s pork chops and other loin cuts usually have very little visible intramuscular fat, making them very sensitive to overcooking. This change to 145° F-plus-3 minutes will help!

Further Reading

- You can view the full report by clicking here.

- Go to our previous news item on this story by clicking here.
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