There's nothing particularly scary about the process of meat preparation, but meat in its unfrozen, uncooked stage bears special mention. Read on for information about the proper thawing, storage and handling of uncooked meat, as well as the potential dangers of mishandling it.
Meat is at its most potentially harmful stage when it is between frozen and cooked. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, foods that are raw and of animal origin are the most likely to be contaminated with infectious microbes. The most common foodborne illnesses associated with uncooked meat stem from three types of bacteria: Salmonella, E. coli O157:H7 and Campylobacter. Any of these bacteria can have moderate to severe effects on the human digestive system. Common symptoms are abdominal cramping, fever and diarrhea. Severe cases can also include bleeding, anemia and kidney failure. In addition to infectious bacteria, uncooked meat can harbor harmful viruses such as Calicivirus.
Sometimes, time is a factor. Most people have been guilty of forgetting to take meat out of the freezer in time to effectively thaw for dinner. In these cases, you can be tempted to cut corners to speed up the process. Some of these methods can compromise the quality of the meat and/or increase the chances of contracting a foodborne illness. Leaving frozen meat on the counter to thaw at room temperature is never recommended, as this can turn the meat into a breeding ground for viruses and bacteria. Thawing meat in warm or hot water to expedite the process is also not recommended. The warm temperatures will allow bacteria to multiply on the thawed surface of the meat while the inner parts continue to thaw.
The best method for safely thawing meat is placing it in the refrigerator, as the cold temperatures stunt the multiplication of harmful microbes. When thawing meat in the refrigerator, it is recommended that the meat be placed on a plate or tray to avoid cross-contamination. Ideally, the meat is placed on the lowest shelf in the fridge and kept away from ready-to-eat foods and open containers. While this is the most recommended method, it is also the slowest, so be sure to allow ample time for the meat to thaw. If meat is wrapped and airtight, it can also be placed in a sink full of cold water. Water should be changed every half hour to keep the temperature cold. If you're pressed for time, you can also thaw meat in the microwave using the thaw setting. Temperatures should not be too high, as some parts of the meat can cook during the thawing process and the meat quality can be compromised.
The type of thawed meat determines the amount of time it can stay in the refrigerator before cooking. Keep in mind, though, that all meat deteriorates quickly once it has been frozen and thawed. Ground meats such as beef, turkey or chicken should be cooked as soon as possible after they have been thawed. Steaks, roasts and chops can potentially remain in the fridge for up to five days. Once thawed meat is placed in a room temperature environment, the time frame is drastically reduced. It is not recommended for thawed meat to remain on a countertop for more than two hours. During warm seasons and in warm environments, this time should be cut in half. Once meat has been thawed, it should not be refrozen.
For health and safety purposes, any surface or utensil that comes into contact with thawed meat should be cleaned thoroughly. The plate or tray the meat was placed on to thaw in the fridge can be hand washed or placed in the dishwasher along with cutting boards, knives, tongs and cutlery. If the meat sat directly on a countertop, the surface should be wiped down with an antibacterial surface cleaner. Sponges or rags should be rinsed immediately in hot water. To avoid cross contamination, cooked meat should be place on a different tray than the one used for thawing. Most important, any person who handles raw meat should wash his/her hands thoroughly.
When it comes to something potentially hazardous like raw meat, it is always best to err on the side of caution. If you are unsure about how long meat has been left to sit at room temperature, it is best to dispose of it. Trust your senses. If there is something off about the look, feel or smell of uncooked meat, the best option is to avoid it altogether.