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The USDA recommends cooking many meats to an internal temperature of at least 145 °F (63 °C) to kill off pathogens. That usually works for me, but the big exception is steak. Whenever I try reaching at least 145 °F (63 °C), I always cook the steak to well-done, and online articles generally say rarer cuts have to dip well below 145 °F (63 °C).

Still, regular portions of rare steak hasn't ever gotten me sick. So what keeps the raw meat safe enough for us to eat rare? Are there things I do or should do to ensure safe raw meat (e.g. sourcing, preservation, preparation, and cooking)?

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    There are countries where people eat raw meat, especially steak cut to tartare (fine pieces) and nobody gets sick (or at least so few it does not make the news) that is for instance France and the Netherlands. – Willeke Oct 29 '20 at 17:48
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    @Willeke: People absolutely do get sick, and even die, from eating raw meat in these countries. It just isn't widely reported. – Jack Aidley Oct 29 '20 at 22:00
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    @JackAidley In fact it is so not widely reported that I was unable to find a single example of death related to steak tartare in France. Uncooked chicken, yes, but not steak tartare. – asac Oct 30 '20 at 7:52
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    Tartar steak are prepared differently. I suspect the standards are similar to how sushi is made safe without cooking. It involves flash freezing and defrosting, killing the surface pathogens. – Nelson Oct 30 '20 at 8:50
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    @Willeke: Food standards in the EU are significantly higher than in the US. See for instance the current UK debate about chlorinated chicken.And if you do get sick, antibiotics are more likely to help. – MSalters Oct 30 '20 at 10:08
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First, 145 °F (63 °C) and higher is the temperature for a well done steak. So, with the addition of carry-over cooking, your results don't surprise me. If you are shooting for rare, cook to an internal temperature of 125 °F (52 °C), and let your steak rest 10 minutes before slicing.

While the USDA correctly and necessarily provides temperature guidelines, in fact the reduction of pathogens follows a logarithmic curve and includes the variables of temperature and time. That means, in general, that longer times at lower temperatures will reduce pathogens. This understanding is the basis of sous vide cooking, for example.

Additionally, we generally assume that any potential pathogens are only present on the surface of whole muscle cuts. So, again, in general, achieving the target temperature on the surface eliminates the threat.

Finally, the quality and handling of the raw product is critical. It is important that you have fresh products, kept refrigerated or frozen until use, and handled by people who are practicing safe handling procedures (washed hands or gloves, ...).

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    I guess this is why people often suggest using the mallet instead of the needle tenderizer; the needles poke holes for the surface liquids to seep deep inside. – BatWannaBe Oct 29 '20 at 18:11
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    The explanation for why steak is ok to eat rare should also be a convincing reason to fully cook hamburger – aherocalledFrog Oct 29 '20 at 19:34
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    It's perhaps worth noting that the reason that poultry is not safe when merely surface cooked is precisely because pathogens do penetrate the muscle in these meats. – Jack Aidley Oct 29 '20 at 22:02
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    @JackAidley and with Pork, they are hosts of parasites and they come from the inside. – Nelson Oct 30 '20 at 6:01
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    @Nelson The fear of raw pork, especially in the US, is mostly related to poor food safety standards. Raw minced pork is commonly eaten in Germany with no ill effects. – Maeher Oct 30 '20 at 11:52
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One answer I didn't see above: (Edit: Well, it was there. Guess I missed it. Leaving this to cover details that were omitted)

Cooking for safety is a function of temperature and TIME. For example, the USDA recommends 165° for chicken. But, that's an instantaneous temperature read. It's perfectly safe to eat chicken that was cooked to lower temperatures, held for a longer time.

For example, serious eats has the following chart at their food lab guide to sous vide: (Their chart was in-turn derived from a USDA link which is no longer live)

Temperature     Time
136°F (58°C)    68.4 minutes
140°F (60°C)    27.5 minutes
145°F (63°C)    9.2 minutes
150°F (66°C)    2.8 minutes
155°F (68°C)    47.7 seconds
160°F (71°C)    14.8 seconds
165°F (74°C)    Instant

So, if you want medium rare chicken, just bring it up to 140° and hold it at that temperature for 27.5 minutes. Steak is safer for additional reasons also discussed, but it's perfectly possible to have less-than-well done chicken and pork safely.

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The USDA recommends cooking many meats

many

That is your problem right there. This USDA guideline is one that, if followed, makes almost all meat safe to eat. Meaning that it caters to the lowest common denominator, the cheapest meat out there.

It's like recommending a complete Hazmat suit with oxygen bottle for anyone working with any chemicals. Yes, everyone will be perfectly fine, but it's an overkill for 99% of activities.

And the same goes for your beef: you're bringing out the hazmat gear for a high schoolers "growing crystals" experiment.

So

So what keeps the raw meat safe enough for us to eat rare?

Generally two things: first of all, its beef as opposed to pork or chicken. The latter two can carry many diseases which spreads to humans. In cows there are very few such diseases and all those are tested for. Secondly: people give a shit. Especially with the meat that decent steakhouses procure, they have their tested and tried supply chains and pay the premium for people to give a shit about hygiene.

In Europe safety regulations means that this care is (supposed to be) taken for all beef but I wouldn't trust it with random stuff from the supermarket. Go to your local butcher and ask them about beef you could eat raw and if they are good they should have some.

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    Regarding pork: keep in mind that pork is also eaten raw in some countries, see Mett. – Robert Oct 30 '20 at 20:38
  • Finally a nice answer concerning food safety. People seem to compare chain catering and more generally food distribution/shipping to their kitchen. – Alchimista Oct 31 '20 at 12:14
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Are there things I do or should do to ensure safe raw meat (e.g. sourcing, preservation, preparation, cooking)?

Raw beef from a healthy cow is sterile, so most of the pathogens you could poison yourself with develop on the surface. With that knowledge:

  • Smell the meat you're going to eat raw. Spoilage on the surface typically starts with "sour" smell, which gradually turns into "rotten"

  • Prefer big chunks of meat over smaller slices

  • If in doubt, cut the outer parts of the chunk and cook them conventionally, only consume the inner part raw

  • Don't consume mass-produced ground meat raw: it is a mix coming from different animals, so the risk of getting poisoned by the meat from a sick animal is multiplied. Plus, the whole mass is essentially "surface"

Poultry and pork bear much higher risk of inner pathogens and should not be eaten raw.

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    IIUC, pork no longer has particularly high likelihood of "inner pathogens", and is roughly as safe as beef now. – Joe M Nov 1 '20 at 3:20

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