Food & Drink

Here's When It's Safe to Eat Pink Meat

cheeseburger onion ring bites
Cole Saladino/Thrillist

When the Internet saw our recipe for cheeseburger onion ring bites on Facebook, it let out a collective gasp because the meat was the color of Steve Buscemi in Reservoir Dogs, which is to say, pink and a little bloody. We weren't worried about contamination because we used high-quality beef, but others seemed to think that rare meat is as dangerous as a suit-wearing jewelry store robber who doesn't believe in tipping.

So to clear up any misconceptions about meat safety, we spoke with several food safety experts: Suki Hertz, food science professor from The Culinary Institute of America, Mary Meck Higgins, nutrition PhD and associate professor at Kansas State University, and Jacqueline Aizen, registered dietitian and regular Thrillist contributor.

We were surprised to learn that despite stringent USDA guidelines, eating pink meat isn't a black-and-white issue. The relative risk of contamination varies based on meat type, source, and pure chance, and we learned that in practice many chefs walk on the wild side of temperature regulations in order to achieve a juicy, tender piece of meat. So don't worry about calling a hospital if your steak bleeds out, but read on to learn when to pass on a rare burger.

rare steak
Andrew Zimmer/Thrillist

Rare steaks are fine, ground beef is questionable

According to Hertz, the primary danger zone on a cut of beef is the exterior layer where the most common E. coli strains and other pathogens breed. Searing a whole steak cut will kill most bad bacteria and sterilize the meat, but Higgins (and the USDA) are more skeptical because other strains have the potential to contaminate the whole muscle.

Part of how chefs can get away with serving rare steaks or steak tartar is by carefully sourcing their proteins. Aizen goes so far as to suggest never consuming factory-farmed animals, even when fully cooked, because the risks of contamination are so much higher.

This is especially true with ground beef. Hertz cited a stat that a low-quality burger patty could contain meat from up to 283 cows, which aside from being a weirdly specific number, also makes it hard to trust that no susceptible surface-level muscle ended up in the mix. So budget burgers must always be cooked to a safe internal temp of 160 degrees Fahrenheit.

That said, one way restaurants can decrease the risk of a pathogen-filled patty is by grinding their own burgers themselves from a single muscle, greatly decreasing the chance of cross-contamination.

chicken plate
Ruth Tobias/Thrillist

Pink poultry has risks of salmonella, but is a professional gray zone

Here's where things get controversial. In our initial conversation with Hertz, she suggested that just like beef, most dangerous bacteria in chicken lives on the outside of the meat. Therefore many restaurants cook under the suggested temperature (165 degrees Fahrenheit) in order to maintain a juicy interior.

When we consulted the other nutritionists, both threw up red flags, citing a serious risk of salmonella and Campylobacter jejuni, which is slightly less dangerous but still bloody stool-inducing.

"If you go to the FDA website for risk assessment, they're never going to write this," says Hertz. "But if I bought my chicken from a nice local farm, I wouldn't be scared. If I was buying it from a grocery store, I would be a little more scared."

Her cavalier nature doesn't carry over into the classroom, where she teaches students the black-and-white food safety rules, but years dealing with the realities of professional cooking have made her less afraid of shades of pink. However she is quick to point out that salmonella is quick to mutate and that even more innocuous strains can turn deadly, a point echoed by Higgins who cited a staggering 2,300 different types of the bacteria.

Just like with beef, dangerous bacteria live on the outside of chicken or turkey and most preparation methods will cook the exterior to a safe temperature. Internally the FDA suggests heating to 165 degrees Fahrenheit, but Hertz has noticed many restaurants settle for 160 degrees Fahrenheit in order to maintain moisture levels without compromising safety. So pink chicken won't kill anyone, but even the most adventurous eaters are probably averse to a bloody bird based on texture and appearance alone.

pork on cutting board
Dan Gentile/Thrillist

The risk is always there in pork, but less so

Rare pork used to be associated with a high risk of trichinella parasites because factory pigs ate literal garbage. Livestock dietary regulations have largely solved this problem, so the FDA's internal-temperature advisory has dropped over time from 165 degrees to 145 degrees. Fans of rare pork chops rejoice, but don't go biting into raw belly: the E. coli risks are still real, so commodity pork should be cooked with care.

racks of lamb
Dan Gentile/Thrillist

Rare lamb follows the same rules

Lamb is susceptible to E. coli and Campylobacter germs, but like all the other proteins on here, most of the bacteria live in the exterior and will be sterilized with a nice sear. Which is reassuring given the rare (and right!) preparation of most racks of lamb, but low-quality lamb meat can still suffer from the same dangers as the rest of the proteins on this list.

salmon fillets
Dan Gentile/Thrillist

But fish is another story

According to Hertz, seafood is more vulnerable to parasites than land-based proteins (halibut is a primary offender), but modern supply-chain techniques like flash freezing have cut down significantly on the risk. If a piece of seafood does have parasites, though, cooking thoroughly won't rid the meat of them. This means that rareness doesn't even matter.

Same goes for toxins released if a fish is improperly caught and processed. No amount of cooking will solve that problem, so the best way to prevent food poisoning from seafood is to avoid nebulously sourced fish. 

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Dan Gentile is a staff writer at Thrillist. He's now thinking twice about rare burgers, but still eating tuna sashimi with reckless abandon. Follow him to raw tweets at @Dannosphere.