Here at Food52, I have covered pop culture phenomena like Ted Lasso and The Great British Bake Off. I have shared tips for food and produce storage, written dozens of delicious recipe roundups, and professed my love to Stanley Tucci. But I’ve also written about lots and lots of recalls due to salmonella, E.coli, and listeria outbreaks. And that’s because it seems like every week, something new is being recalled. I’ve researched why there are so many salmonella outbreaks in products such as hummus, raw onions, and carrots, but there’s still one question that remains: Does cooking kill salmonella?
“The short answer is yes, cooking will kill salmonella, but it has to be the right type of cooking,” says Trevor Craig, corporate director of technical consulting for Microbac Laboratories. This doesn’t mean that if you knowingly have chicken breasts that have been recalled you should cook with them anyway. You should discard them immediately or return them to the place of purchase. But lots of food may contain trace amounts of salmonella or other foodborne pathogens—no recall needed. In order to ensure that you kill off any and all bacteria before consuming meat, poultry, or even vegetables, you need to cook it thoroughly.
As a general rule of thumb, cook all food to an internal temperature 165℉. The only way to ensure that you have hit the right temperature is using a meat thermometer to check the internal temperature of say, a piece of chicken or steak. “If you don’t cook your food to a certain temperature for a certain amount of time, you’re not actually going to kill off that bacteria.”
Although most pathogenic bacteria live on the outside of the food, that doesn’t mean that you don’t have to cook something all of the way through. Ground meat—whether it’s beef, pork, chicken, veal, or turkey—should always be cooked well-done because whatever bacteria was on the outside will be spread throughout the rest of the meat once it is ground.
The same can be said for vegetables. Even though bacteria like salmonella lives on the outside of vegetables such as onions and carrots, when you cut into them, the bacteria will be spread to the inside. “Treat raw vegetables as carefully as you do raw meat,” said Craig.
Stop the Spread
However, just because you cooked food thoroughly doesn’t mean that you can’t still spread salmonella. “Cooking is not always the final step. Sometimes you may cut it and plate it and if the tools you’re using—like a cutting board or chef’s knife—are contaminated with salmonella, then you will ultimately re-contaminate that food with the bacteria, even if you already fully cooked it,” says Craig. This is why it’s so important to use a separate cutting board and knife for preparing meat or poultry (and preferably one that you can wash and sanitize in the dishwasher afterwards). You should also disinfect any countertops or shelves that the meat may have come in contact with while it was stored or prepped.
Food Storage Matters
Look inside your refrigerator. Does everything have a place? Or are things stacked haphazardly? Maybe tonight’s salmon fillets are next to a carton of eggs and a bowl of apples on the top shelf. How you store produce in your refrigerator and pantry can impact your food safety at home. Meat should always be stored on the bottom shelf and raw vegetables should be stored separately from anything that could potentially be a cross-contamination risk. “Sometimes I go to people’s houses and I see that all of those things are on the same shelf wherever they have space. That’s dangerous because you run the risk of your meat having some liquid that is full of salmonella drip off onto something that you may snack on raw, like baby carrots or an apple,” says Craig.
To Toss or Not to Toss
Let’s take, for example, the most recent recall of onions due to salmonella this week. If you have onions that you know are part of the recall (or if you have some from an unknown origin source), then you should obviously discard them or return them to the place of purchase for a full recall.
But what about the garlic bulbs that you stored near the onions on the counter? Or what if they were in the same bowl together? What do you do then? “Salmonella is not an airborne pathogen,” says Craig. This means that as long as your onions are stored separately from other food products, even if they’re in the same pantry space, the rest of the food is safe. However, salmonella can be transmitted through direct contact between a contaminated food source and something else (i.e. garlic and onions in the same fruit bowl or container). “If salmonella was on the outside of those onions, then it’s going to be on the outside of the garlic or potatoes, too,” he says.
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