Food Thermometers to Protect Your Family's and Customers' Health

Help prevent illness from undercooked meats

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Many people associate food thermometers with checking the temperature and doneness of an Easter ham, Thanksgiving turkey, or Christmas roast. However the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) advises using meat thermometers for everyday cooking as well as for professional restaurant cooking, whether you are preparing poultry, red meat, or pork. Regardless of the size or cut of meat you are preparing, the only truly steadfast method to ensure that the food is at a safe temperature for consumption is by using meat thermometers.

Less common food thermometers are used to verify food is at a low enough temperature for preservation using commercial refrigeration. These refrigerator thermometers are a second check for the ones that come with the units. Additionally, hygrometers are used to track humidity inside the cabinet, to ensure moisture won't promote the growth of bacteria.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture reports that one in four hamburgers will take on a brown color prior to reaching an internal temperature capable of killing harmful bacteria, although a USDA survey from 2002 revealed that only 6% of at-home meal preparers regularly utilize a thermometer to check the safety and doneness of the hamburgers they cook. Making use of a food thermometer is advised over simply eyeballing a food to ensure safe meat cooking temperature, as looks and color can be deceiving.

The Main Benefit to Using a Food Thermometer: Safety

Foodborne illness can be prevented by proper cooking, but sometimes our senses are not enough to guarantee that food has reached the optimum temperature for eradicating harmful bacteria. Bacteria can grow in (and on) all types of foods including seafood, poultry, produce, and of course meat. And food poisoning is not biased: foodborne illness is capable of striking any person who consumes undercooked or otherwise improperly prepared contaminated food. Utilizing a meat thermometer when preparing poultry and other meat is an incredibly effective way to make certain that the internal temperature has reached a level where harmful bacteria would have been killed. It’s even a good idea to use a food thermometer when preparing egg dishes such as thick omelets or frittatas, as raw egg can be a source of food poisoning just as easily as meat.

Although everybody is at risk for contracting a foodborne illness, there are certain demographics of people who have an increased risk. Folks whose immune systems are weakened, such as people with chronic illness and older adults, are more apt to develop a foodborne illness. Likewise, children, newborns, and pregnant women are also at a higher risk for food poisoning, and so increased care should be taken to adhere to food safety practices and utilize a food thermometer for these individuals.

Though the main motive for using a food thermometer in the kitchen is safety and protection from illness, an added benefit is the flip side: it can also help ensure you don’t overcook your meal, which can lead to dry, tough, and chewy meat. Not only will food be less flavorful, but the USDA also advises that overcooked food is susceptible for a great deal of nutrient loss as well, especially depleting Vitamin C.

Facts about Foodborne Illnesses

Foodborne illness, commonly referred to as “food poisoning,” is defined by the World Health Organization as toxic and infectious diseases caused by harmful pathogens entering the human body as a direct result of contaminated food consumption. According to the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, foodborne illnesses are responsible for an annual rate of 76 million illnesses in the United States alone. The amount of hospitalizations from foodborne diseases is close to 325,000, and the death toll hovers between 3,000-5,000 annually. Financially speaking, roughly $5.5 billion is spent yearly on foodborne illness in the U.S., accounting for lost productivity as well as medical expenses. The PCRM states that not only are cases of foodborne disease increasing, but that many illnesses are proving more and more difficult to treat with antibiotics as the resistance level of foodborne pathogens to antibiotics is also on the rise.

The National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDKD) explains that not all bacteria are harmful to humans, but certain foods—especially raw meat and poultry—that carry harmful bacteria can lead to sickness if improperly washed and cooked before being consumed. The NIDDKD states that it is possible for foods such as eggs, shellfish, poultry and meat to become contaminated at any point of their lifespan, whether it be during harvesting, slaughtering, growing, or cross-contamination during shipping and packaging. Last but not least, previously uncontaminated foods can become so while at the home of the buyer, if they come into contact with bacteria in the kitchen. Food preparers who do not properly engage in hand washing and cleaning of kitchen supplies and utensils, open up the risk for exposing otherwise safe foods to potentially harmful bacteria from contaminated foods.

Cooking food thoroughly kills bacteria, which is where a food thermometer is utilized. To kill off the bad bacteria, foods need to reach the correct cooking temperature. Meat that doesn't reach that level is at risk for making a consumer sick. Temperature plays a big role in bacteria growth, as well as reduction. Bacteria have the ability to multiply at a rapid rate if hot foods are not kept hot enough, or if chilled foods are likewise not kept refrigerated.

One of the more common organisms to infect raw or undercooked game meat and pork is called trichinellosis, also referred to as trichinosis. According to the CDC, the U.S. pork industry has put in place Trichinella control strategies for pigs raised in confinement. These methods are effective in producing swine that are free of the Trichinella parasites. However, for pigs that are free-range or otherwise raised outdoors and near other animal life, there is always the risk of swine that have contracted this parasite.

Typically the first symptoms will arise about a day or two after a person has eaten raw/undercooked meat from a Trichinella-infected animal. These symptoms include typical gastrointestinal issues such as nausea with or without vomiting, diarrhea and pain in the abdomen. Other symptoms can occur as late as two weeks following consumption of the bad meat, and include such conditions as chills, coughing, fatigue, facial swelling, fever, muscular pains, and constipation. In very rare cases, death can occur in the most severe episodes.

Sources of Illness from Undercooked Meat

How to Utilize a Food Thermometer at Home

Follow these easy instructions when cooking at home with a food thermometer:

  • When purchasing the thermometer, try to choose one with a digital instant or rapid-read capability. Some of the bi-metal dial models can take up to 30 seconds to give a reading, in which time the temperature might actually change, and can produce a less accurate reading. Whatever type or model of thermometer you choose, make sure to read the directions before use.
  • The proper time to check the internal temperature of your food is when it is getting close to done, but before your timer goes off to signify that the food is finished cooking.
  • Start by sticking the digital thermometer into the thickest part of the meat or food, since this is the area that will take the longest to cook. Take care to ensure that the thermometer probe is not touching on fat or bone, as this will skew the reading.
  • After you’ve taken a reading from the thickest part of the food, place the thermometer in several other spots to take readings of different areas. This will guarantee that the meal is properly heated throughout.
  • Some people may choose to utilize oven-safe dial food thermometers, which are placed into the food at the start of cooking and remain there for the duration. These thermometers can be checked throughout the cooking time, to monitor the internal temperature of the food.
  • Liken the readings from your food, to those recommended by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (see chart below)
  • In between uses, it is important to wash the food thermometer with soap and hot water.
Food Thermometers

Other tips for where to place the food thermometer according to the Food Safety and Inspection Service

  • For roasts of lamb, beef or pork: place the thermometer midway inside the roast away from bone.
  • For chops, steaks or burgers: place the thermometer into the thickest portion of the meat. For hamburgers, you can remove them from the heat source and stick the probe in sideways if the meat patty is thin.
  • For poultry: place the thermometer at the innermost portion of thigh and wing, and in the thickest part of the breast, checking the temperature at each of these locations.
  • For the stuffing inside of a turkey, duck or chicken: place the thermometer to the center of the stuffing. It is safe and done at 165 degrees F.
  • For irregularly shaped poultry or meat: place the thermometer into the thickest area, and then move the probe to different places of the meat to ensure an overall safe temperature.
  • For barbecue: Use a heat-safe BBQ thermometer placed into the thickest part of the meat with the tip away from the bone. The bone will heat faster than the meat, so it will skew the reading. If you're doing low-and-slow smoking, temperature monitoring is especially important. To avoid poking holes through which juices can escape during cooking, many cooks will use two BBQ thermometers that they can put it in at the start and leave in until serving.
Types of Food Thermometers

Food Thermometer Cleaning and Care

The Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) strongly advises hand-cleaning thermometers with soap and hot water before and after each use to prevent any cross contamination of bacteria from raw foods to other foods. FSIS also recommends taking care to observe the specific cleaning needs of each model, as some thermometers have cords or plastic faces which should be cleaned carefully and kept away from hot liquids and water. Immersing food thermometers completely in water is not advised. Since the probes on thermometers are intended to puncture food and therefore can be quite sharp, storing inside of a protective sheath is recommended.

Internal Food Temperatures Advised by the USDA

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s standards for food safety are easy to find online, and their recommended internal food temperatures can be considered the “Golden Rules” for safety standards:

  • 145°- minimum internal temperature for red meats such as lamb, veal, beef and pork of all cuts.
  • 160° - minimum internal temperature for ground red meats including ground beef, ground lamb, and ground pork.
  • 165°- minimum internal temperature for all poultry including turkey, chicken, duck, and eggs.

For the safest results, check to make sure all meats have reached their recommended minimum internal temperature prior to removing from the grill, oven, stove or broiler. It is advisable to let the meat sit for 3-5 minutes prior to cutting or eating.

Why Our Senses Are Not the Best Judge

Among those who currently do not use a food thermometer when cooking, a common reason is that they presume they can gauge the doneness of food by sight or feel. For instance, touching a steak to test for consistency, or observing the brownness of the middle of a hamburger, or checking to see that chicken is no longer pink. Sometimes, these methods work, but sometimes they don’t.

Our senses cannot measure the internal temperature of food, thus we cannot truly know when a food is safe to eat based on sight or touch alone. Though color and texture can be good indicators, recent research has shown that they are not always reliable, and they are certainly no substitute for a cooking thermometer. In fact, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reports that a quarter of all hamburgers, or one in four, appear a shade of brown prior to actually reaching an internal temperature that is capable of killing off bacteria. The Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), a branch of the USDA, points out that a hamburger which still has some pink in the center is safe from harmful bacteria as long as the internal temperature is 160 degrees F.

Additional Safe Food Handling Practices

Aside from utilizing cooking thermometers to determine safe eating temperatures of foods, there are many other safety precautions when handling, prepping and storing that can make a difference in preventing foodborne illness. Here are some tips for safe food handling practices:

  • Keeping hands, surfaces and all cutting utensils clean can help to fend off bacteria. It is recommended to wash hands in soapy warm water for 20-30 seconds both prior to and following any food handling. Produce should always be rinsed under fresh running water, and cutting boards should be properly cleaned in between uses.
  • Take care to separate produce from raw meats and seafood. Safe food practices begin when shopping: during your shop and at checkout, separate your foods into three groups consisting of pre-cooked, raw, and ready to eat. Bag these foods separately and when preparing or cooking them, remember never to share a cutting board or plate that held raw meat, with cooked food or fresh fruits or vegetables.
  • Get at least one refrigerator thermometer and use it to ensure the temperature inside the box never goes above 40 degrees. If you put raw foods like fruits, vegetables, and meats into bin drawers, use additional refrigeration thermometers in those to ensure safe holding temperatures.
  • Use your food thermometer when cooking to verify a safe internal temperature of your food.
  • Make sure to refrigerate perishable foods within a couple hours of purchase. This rule of thumb goes for frozen foods as well. If you are keeping leftovers, make sure to pack and refrigerate them promptly after the meal, and when reheating for later consumption, reaching an internal temperature of 165 degrees is advised.
  • To further ensure safe storage of foods, pair your refrigeration thermometer with a hygrometer, which keeps track of the humidity level in the refrigerator. That will allow you to take action if the moisture level is too high, which can promote rotting and bacterial growth, or too low, which can dry foods out.