The standard advice, for both steak and fish is to cook them to an internal temperature of 160 degrees to kill any bacterial contamination. Is this overly simplistic advice that's mostly incorrect? Please hear me out:

In the case of fish, the pathogen people worry about is listeria and it's generally introduced by incorrect handling at the fish processing plant. For beef, we're talking salmonella and friends. Same situation though: "The muscles of healthy animals contain less or nil microorganisms though, meat can be contaminated during slaughtering and transportation " (see article). To me it seems that the bacterial contamination is therefore on the surface of the meat or fish.

When we put meat or fish into an oven or on the grill, the outer surface is cooked first, eventually heating up the inside of the meat. By the time the inside of the fish or meat reaches medium-rare or medium, the outside has long surpassed the temperature needed to kill any pathogens on the surface of the meat. If we know that the pathogens are introduced on the surface of the meat and are killed off when we heat the surface, why is the standard advice to cook the fish and meat to an internal temperature that's unnecessary and potentially makes the protein taste worse than it needs to be? Do the bacteria grow into the meat or fish in some way? I imagine that they way they grow is along the surface of the meat, so unless you're cooking hamburger, there's no reason in the world to overcook it. Am i missing something?

I've been thinking about this question of food safety for a while, and I was hoping someone knows enough about this topic to illuminate the situation.

  • 2
    This is a partial duplicate of cooking.stackexchange.com/questions/24356/…. That question does not cover fish at all. Also, there's a bit of a misconception here: authorities like the USDA recommend cooking steak and fish to an internal temperature of 145 °F, not 160.
    – Juhasz
    Dec 29, 2021 at 22:17
  • Yes, I agree, the meat half of the question seems to have been answered in some detail. Thanks! Still would like to have an answer re fish. Also curious whether there's any actual research on this topic and not just expert opinion, although I'm honestly ok with the answer. Dec 29, 2021 at 22:49
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    Much of the safety concern for fish is tangled up in the type of fish (does it host parasites, for example), and the processing of the fish (sushi quality, for example). Bacteria reproduce in generally the same way regardless of type of protein. Bacteria "in" (as opposed to on) a protein is most typically introduced in processing.
    – moscafj
    Dec 30, 2021 at 0:23
  • The pathogens get inside the meat during capture, killing etc. Just a quick poke with a knife or hook will do it. Feb 4, 2022 at 11:03

1 Answer 1


I'm pretty sure the 160 degree temperature is for mechanically tenderized beef. In that case, the manufacturers use machines with needles to "poke" the meat so any pathogens on the surface can get transferred to the inside. With non-mechanically tenderized beef the safe internal temperature is lower.

  • That makes a lot of sense. How about for fish, they're not normally mechanically tenderized? Dec 30, 2021 at 3:00
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    My best guess would be that it depends on the type of fish. Maybe ones with firmer flesh can be eaten more rare because the pathogens can't penetrate the outer flesh. I'm not sure though, only guessing.
    – RYZEXY
    Dec 30, 2021 at 3:06

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