A Food Safety Answer from “Karen”
We all know that there are certain temperatures every meat we cook has to reach before we can safely eat it, right? So, a question came up as we were waiting for the turkey to finish cooking this Thanksgiving: Why does it matter how you thaw or handle the bird before it’s cooked if you’re going to kill all the germs by reaching that food safe temperature?
Given that none of us could come up with an answer, I figured it must be a decent question and perhaps one pondered on by other families across the country on poultry’s biggest day. Since everyone from the USDA to the good folks answering the phones at the Butterball Turkey Talk-Line will tell you the bird must hit a minimum internal temperature of 165 degrees F, what does handling matter to food safety?
Enter the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services and a fictional woman named Karen. Karen is the persona the agency has created to give a human face to its chat service. Through Karen (that's her picture to the right), federal employees, presumably surrounded by reams of information about food safety, answer your meat handling questions. They’re available from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Eastern on weekdays, and are both very pleasant and very knowledgeable.
The man or woman playing Karen on the morning of Black Friday answered this query by explaining that some bacteria, if allowed to multiply by poor handling, can produce toxins that aren’t eliminated by that magical 165. Chief among these, “Karen” told me, are Staphylococcus aureus, which causes staph infections, and Clostridium perfringens, which Karen told me is commonly called “the cafeteria germ.” In case that term is also not as common for you as Karen implied, it got the name because it apparently shows up in places where food is left on serving lines for long periods without proper food safety precautions.
Both of these germs cause the sort of symptoms we generally associate with food poisoning, including nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. As Karen said, though the bacterium themselves may perish in a massive die-off when the temperatures reach the set appropriate threshold for each meat, the toxins they create survive. To paraphrase Ray Stevens, “They say the dead can’t hurt you ‘cause they already left, but what they left can sure make you sick.”
Avoid the Temperature Danger Zone: 40-140 Degrees F
So, how do you avoid testing Karen’s lesson and ending up with tummy trouble? Just like professional cooks, home chefs must be aware of the food danger zone. That’s the thermometer span from 40-140 degrees F when most bacterial growth occurs. At the right temperatures, a.k.a. those in the danger zone, some bacterial colonies can double in just seconds. When food is stored below those levels in a refrigerator or freezer, and cooked above them, bacteria is likely to be either inactive or dead.
To keep food safe and out of that range, ensure your refrigerator holds temperatures at or below 38 degrees and your freezer operates at 0 degrees or colder. Put cooked foods in the refrigerator immediately, placing them on the top shelf or as high up as possible to avoid having their heat rise through the entire cabinet. If you’ll be leaving cooked food out for serving, ensure you maintain a temperature above 140.
It’s also good to remember that a kitchen thermometer doesn’t just come in handy when you’re cooking. If you’ll be doing a lot of work to prepare a dish, particularly a meat product, regularly check its internal temperature as you do to ensure it’s not advancing into the danger zone. If it starts to warm, put it back in the refrigerator for a while until the internal temperature comes back down, then continue your work. That should preserve food safety.
If you have any questions about safe food handling, don’t hesitate to get in touch with Karen. Give her a, "Hello," from us.