From the farm to the store, meat and poultry products must be chilled -- and kept chilled, packaged and handled properly so it will be safe for consumers to buy. Several government agencies have the responsibility to assure the food's safety. In the home, food caretakers must do their part to store, handle and cook meat and poultry right so it's safe to eat.
Here are some of the scientific principles behind the safe storage of meat and poultry:
Why Is Chilling Meat and Poultry Important?
Raw meat and poultry products should be maintained at 40 degrees F or below to greatly reduce the growth rate of any pathogenic bacteria that may be present on their surfaces. Chilling is required of all raw products unless they move directly from the slaughter line to heat processing or cooking (made into hot dogs or luncheon meats, for example), which destroys pathogens.
How Are Meat and Poultry Chilled and Maintained at the Plant?
Meat and poultry products are chilled immediately after slaughter to acceptable internal temperatures, which ensure the prompt removal of the animal heat and preserve the wholesomeness of the products. Generally, red meat carcasses (which are above 90 degrees F at the time of slaughter) are chilled in a blast cooler with rapidly moving chilled air, and, in some instances, a cold-water shower.
Poultry is required to be chilled to 40 degrees F or less within specified time frames, depending upon the size of the carcass. Whole birds and parts of major size are chilled in ice or ice and water media. Poultry parts are chilled in ice, air or water spray with continuous drainage. Giblets must be chilled to 40 degrees or below within two hours of slaughtering the birds.
How Does Packaging Prolong Storage Times?
Packaging is a physical barrier to cross contamination. Microorganisms exist everywhere in nature. They are in the soil, air and water. The simple act of covering food keeps microorganisms from contacting the food. Covered perishable foods can be stored longer and at better quality than uncovered foods. Modified atmosphere packaging (MAP) and vacuum packaging help prolong storage.
What Effect Do Vacuum Packaging and MAP Have on Meat Storage?
Oxygen in the air hastens both the chemical breakdown and microbial spoilage of many foods. To help preserve foods longer, scientists have developed ways to help overcome the effects of oxygen. Vacuum packaging, for example, removes air from packages and produces a vacuum inside. MAP (modified atmosphere packaging) helps to preserve foods by replacing some or all of the oxygen in the air inside the package with other gases such as carbon dioxide or nitrogen. (examples: lunch meat in a blister package; raw beef brisket or filets in vacuum packaging; fresh turkeys).
At What Temperature Can Raw Poultry Be Maintained?
The U.S. Department of Agriculture's rules for labeling raw poultry products say that the term "fresh" may ONLY be placed on raw poultry that has never been below 26 degrees F. Poultry held at 0 degrees or below must be labeled "frozen" or "previously frozen." No specific labeling is required on poultry between 0 and 26 degrees F.
This poultry label rule addresses a truth-in-labeling issue, not food safety, because most pathogenic bacteria do not grow or grow very slowly at normal refrigerator temperatures. The USDA concluded that the term "fresh" should not be used on the labeling of raw poultry products that have been chilled to the point they are hard to the touch.
How Are Meat Products Kept Safe During Transportation?
To prevent rapid growth of pathogenic bacteria, perishable meat and poultry products should be kept cold (40 degrees or below) or frozen (0 degrees or below) during transport from the plant to a refrigerated warehouse or retail store. Microorganisms capable of causing foodborne illness either don't grow or grow very slowly at refrigerated temperatures of 40 degrees F. Freezing keeps food safe by slowing the movement of molecules, causing any microbes present to enter a dormant stage. There's also no risk of dripping juices to contaminate nearby products and storage areas.