Thursday, August 29, 2013

To Wash or Not To Wash

 The other day I had a group of students start their class day by opening a few beef shoulder clods that were in vacuum bag. I was in the class, away from the sink where they were opening. I walked out to find them rinsing the beef off with cold water. I immediately called everyone together to explain why this was a bad idea. I asked why they were doing it and the response was "I thought it was making the meat safer".
 The idea of washing meat is certainly not a new one. For years home cooks were told to wash poultry and that would make it less likely to make their family ill. Many an unscrupulous restaurateur has rinsed chicken that is starting to turn with a mixture of salt water and lemon juice, jeopardizing the safety of their customers simply to save a few bucks. Deer hunters have often hosed off their catch to remove excess hair after removing the hide. But would it be normal to see someone rinsing off a steak or chop?
 Back to the rinsing of fresh poultry. A large percentage of chicken or turkey will have some bacteria pathogens on its surface. Does rinsing it off in your kitchen sink remove that bacteria? The reality is rinsing basically spreads the bacteria further around the kitchen as it drips. But that's not to say when you open a poultry bag that you can't rinse off the excess juices to slightly freshen the bird. That may be something you do for flavor reasons but it does not reduce the bacteria counts and should be done with caution to be sure not to cross-contaminate the whole area. It is always wise to wash down the area with soapy water with a cap of bleach in it. Here is a short article on the problem with rinsing. ( it also has a great old clip of Julia Child )

  What about red meat? If an item is stored in a vacuum bag for a few weeks it will purge out liquids that resemble blood. The purge will surround the meat and when the bag is opened the user will be tempted to rinse it. Red meat should never be rinsed. It dilutes flavor and is certainly not needed. Red meat is better trimmed as opposed to rinsed. Removing a thin layer of the fat and exterior membranes will be enough to clean it.
 On the much larger level, how are processors rinsing meat products? Almost all meats are rinsed at some stage in their production. For poultry, birds are stunned, bled and then dipped into hot water to loosen their feathers. The feathers are then plucked off by machines. Needless to say the birds are not clean at this point. The birds are then eviscerated and finally chilled. All of this process is very fast, just a few minutes from start to finish. At the chilling stage most birds are dipped into an ice water bath. Poultry companies have rinses that are applied along the way to reduce pathogens, primarily Salmonella and Campylobactor. The rinses in the past contained elevated chlorine counts but recently there are different products that are now used. An article in the Washington Post explains the process modern poultry companies are using  Today we see less chlorine and more peracetic acids and cetylpyridinium chloride (also found in mouthwash). This is what chicken and turkey companies are doing to reduce pathogens.
 What are beef companies doing to clean their carcasses? The major scare for beef is strains of E-Coli and the prevention starts with washing the carcass with very hot water before the hide is taken off. After evisceration the split carcass is either washed with hot water and steam again or sprayed with a mild lactic acid. These pasteurizing methods are effective, especially for beef of higher quality that is then chilled for a day or two.
 But the truth about cleaning is meat is going to have pathogens. Sure we can say animals should be kept in cleaner environs before heading to market and they may help but bacteria loves meat and the way to control it is always proper handling and cooking.