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How would you like that cooked?

Medium-rare is now an option for pork

By Jennifer Carrico

How do you like your steak cooked? If the answer is medium-rare, that is now an option for your pork chops as well.

New cooking guidelines from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Safety Inspection Service show pork can be safely consumed when cooked to an internal temperature of 145 degrees Fahrenheit--15 degrees less than what was previously recommended.

"After nearly five years of consumer studies, risk assessments, and research, we are happy to be able to give consumers a better eating experience with cooking whole-muscle pork cuts to a lower temperature, resulting in more flavorful, juicy and tender pork," said Steve Larsen, director of pork safety for the National Pork Board.

The research

Larsen said the NPB initially did a consumer study to see what pork attributes consumers prefer, followed by a risk assessment for safety, which was presented to the USDA.

A third-party risk assessment was done to determine whether there was a presence of Salmonella at the retail level. A risk was not found.

The new recommendation evolved from a 2007 Pork Checkoff-funded research project conducted by Ohio State University to measure consumer eating preferences. As part of that project the university researchers tested how various end-cooking temperatures affected eating preferences. But the researchers needed to know if temperatures below 160 degrees--the previous recommendation--would be safe if that turned out to be the consumers' preference.

Texas A&M checkoff-funded research supports the fact that meat temperature continues to rise after being removed from the heat. FSIS agreed that the cooking temperature for pork could be lowered.

The revised recommendation applies to pork whole-muscle cuts, such as loin, chops and roasts--cooking those to 145 degrees, followed by a three-minute rest time before consumption. Ground pork, like all ground meat, should be cooked to 160 degrees Fahrenheit.

"Regardless of the cut or cooking method, both the USDA and National Pork Board recommend using a digital cooking thermometer to ensure an accurate final temperature," said Larsen.


Now that the recommendation has been changed, Larsen said education is the next step in order to change consumer perception of pork and makes sure they have a good eating experience.

Pam Johnson is the director of consumer communications for the National Pork Board. She said the main connection NPB has with consumers is the website: www.PorkBeInspired.com. On this site is all kinds of information for consumers about pork and how to prepare it.

"We also work very closely with some great state associations who share up-to-date information with producers and consumers at fairs, schools and other events," she said. "We need to prevent overcooking of pork and make sure all consumers have a good eating experience."

Johnson said the best way for consumers to be comfortable with the new requirements is to use a digital meat thermometer to prevent overcooking.

NPB will also be working with grocers to teach them how to educate their consumers about the temperature requirements for each pork cut.

"Restaurants and food service have been using the 145-degree guidelines for nearly a decade and restaurants are in charge of working to meet consumer preferences," she said. "Now we want home cooks to learn proper preparation techniques."

The state pork associations are very important in helping with educating consumers. Johnson said the state groups work with the consumer communities at fairs, schools, grocery stores and other events.

"Having actual producers educating consumers is the best way to get the new information out there," she added.

Providing consumers with a better overall eating experience is very important.

"Our consumer research has consistently shown that Americans have a tendency to overcook common cuts of pork, resulting in a less-than-optimal eating experience," said Dianne Bettin, a pork producer from Truman, Minn., and chair of the checkoff's domestic marketing committee. "The new guidelines will help consumers enjoy pork at its most flavorful, juicy--and safe--temperature."

Chefs and food service providers are pleased with the decision as well, so home cooks can have a good eating experience.

"It's great news that home cooks can now feel confident to enjoy medium-rare pork, like they do with other meats," said chef, restaurateur and host of food-focused television programs Guy Fieri in a news release. "Pork cooked to this temperature will be juicy and tender. The foodservice industry has been following this cooking standard for nearly 10 years."

Changes in pork

Larsen said some of the changes might be attributed to changes in pork production over the past 40 years.

Good pork production and quality assurance practices have reduced the risk of diseases, making pork even safer than it already was.

Leaner pork also helped improve nutrition and how the pork is prepared. On average, most common cuts of pork are 16 percent leaner than 20 years ago, and saturated fat has dropped 27 percent. NPB says the pork tenderloin is now as lean as the leanest type of chicken--a skinless chicken breast.

The USDA food preparation guidelines for meat preparation advise washing hands and surfaces often, don't cross-contaminate meats, cook to proper temperatures and refrigerate meats properly before and after cooking.

For additional information about cooking pork, visit www.PorkBeInspired.com.

Jennifer Carrico can be reached by phone at 515-833-2120, or by email at jcarrico@hpj.com.

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