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Given:

  • After handling raw steak, one typically washes hands with soap and washes knives with dishwashing liquid and a sponge, which seems to be enough to remove bacteria,
  • The inside of a steak is sterile and the bacteria are only on the outside

Taste preferences for cooked meat aside: Could one theoretically just wash a raw steak with soap and water, and then not have to worry about foodborne illness?

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  • 4
    soap requires physical scrubbing, too. It’s not a simple ‘pour it on and wait’. And then you’d have to try to get it all off… which means more washing. By the time you’re done, the possibility of aqueous transfer (cross contamination by water) might increase your risk of getting sick. There are techniques out there for ‘safer carpaccio’ where you use a whole muscle, sear the outside, then trim it away. Which is wasteful if you don’t use the trimmings, but might get you the raw meat you’re after at lower risk
    – Joe
    Commented Apr 23, 2023 at 12:26
  • 3
    It would be more effective to use diluted bleach, which is what U.S. poultry meat producers do on a commercial scale (e.g. static1.squarespace.com/static/56eddde762cd9413e151ac92/t/…). Whether it's recommended or even only reasonable is a different question. As an aside, "disinfect" is a bit fuzzy; either method will certainly clean but equally certainly not sterilize. Commented Apr 24, 2023 at 12:06
  • What bacteria do you typically find on your steak? Most of the bacteria that threaten cows lives are on there skins and in there stomachs. Beef is one of your more safe meats?
    – Neil Meyer
    Commented Apr 27, 2023 at 16:03
  • @NeilMeyer I'm less worried about what the cow had and more worried about the bacteria introduced by humans who didn't wash their hands.
    – Andrew
    Commented Apr 27, 2023 at 17:59

3 Answers 3

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Meat of a healthy animal is, by definition, sterile. That is why it is so important to get the intestinal tract out undamaged. So healthy meat is not contaminated from the start.

Of course, in the meat industry, especially of certain nasty jurisdictions, there is little hygiene, and the animals are often sick or fed antibiotics, or both (due to breeding resistant bacteria). Often, it could not even be sold without prior disinfection.
And of course, if you take it out, it will instantly get contaminated on the outside in any non-fully-sterile environment. (Including the skin and intestine!) The question is just how much?.

And that depends on the temperature, humidity and amount of light, as well as porosity and damage (rips along the cutting surface), but meat has blood vessels, lymphatic vessels, pores (esp. chicken), and other means to get into it. Also, the bacteria of certain environments can handle lower temperatures. (This is why fish needs be colder than fridge temperatures: Their natural environment is often already that cold.)
So the bacteria will, over time, get in there. And the more they can eat in there, the more gaps there will be for more bacteria.

Now of course, if you wash it hard enough, you can theoretically wash those bacteria out there again too. But as you can imagine, over time that has to get closer and closer to just destroying the meat really quickly. Like … hours. (Imagine your meat being marinated in soapy water, then washed out, and repeat. If it then still tastes of anything, it will taste of soap. :)
(To be precise, some things aren’t soluble in water nor fat, and therefore can’t be cleaned with soapy water. But this is such an exception for anything living, that I think it it is negligible for this situation.)

In any case, if the butcher is actually serious about food hygiene, and the farmer is actually serious about keeping their animals healthy, almost any meat can be eaten raw for a certain time after. (Bats being a critical exception, since their immune system is so extreme that they just aren’t affected by most pathogens, and carry them happily.)
This is common practice in may countries. Japan has sushi (raw fish). France as steak tartare (raw minced beef). Germany has Mettbrötchen (raw minced pork). In Germany, meat cannot even be sold if a veterinarian doesn’t give their approval before and after butchering. So even minced meat is sold for raw consumption on the same day, and consumed (on bread) a lot, as a breakfast or snack.

So my real answer would be, that washing it is unnecessary, and based on assumptions stemming from already bad (and here in Germany illegal) practice by those who sold that meat.
This was a major conflict during “free trade” negotiations between the EU and USA, for example.

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    "Meat of a healthy animal is, by definition, sterile" exactly until you cut the animal up, not a second longer, unless you do it in an active autoclave. Plus: Whether the animal was healthy is a post factum statement: You cut it up and look for pathogens in the tissue; if you find none you declare it healthy. Viruses are so difficult to find that even the most thorough searches, e.g. for organ transplants, may fail to detect them, see smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/…. Commented Apr 24, 2023 at 11:48
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    @Peter-ReinstateMonica: I don’t see any arguments in your comment. Only a repetition of what I said.
    – anon
    Commented Apr 24, 2023 at 12:40
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    It's probably worth making it a bit clearer that your real answer isn't actually useful in practice for quite a large number (I suspect a substantial majority) of people. While some jurisdictions may have laws that help, overall, being able to afford meat that was farmed and butchered under the conditions you describe is quite a privilege. Typical meat purchased at a grocery store in the US, for example, absolutely does not qualify.
    – Cascabel
    Commented Apr 24, 2023 at 18:18
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    There is an awful lot of editorialization in this post. A factual subject matter, with a factual answer should not require so much personal opinion. As-is, this isn't much of an answer anyone should trust.
    – SnakeDoc
    Commented Apr 24, 2023 at 21:42
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    Welp, time for my mod hat. You've been rude to the OP, to people in general, and to others in these comments. If you'd like to write/edit your answer to clarify, go for it, but you don't get to tell people they're just "triggered", you don't need to criticize groups of people in order to write an answer here, and you don't get to tell people they're immature for not being able to control the way their society handles meat (?!).
    – Cascabel
    Commented Apr 27, 2023 at 20:36
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No, you can't. Your assumptions are both wrong.

The inside of a steak is sterile and the bacteria are only on the outside

This isn't true. Bacteria enjoy eating stuff wherever they find it. There are more of them on the surface, but the inside is certainly not sterile! They go in through microscopic lesions - after all, they are microscopic too.

After handling raw steak, one typically washes hands with soap and washes knives with dishwashing liquid and a sponge, which seems to be enough to remove bacteria

This is enough to remove the whole medium in which bacteria can thrive - that is, raw meat juices. After it, your knives can sit in the drawer at room temperature, and any leftover bacteria trying to start a colony will starve and dehydrate. The bacteria left on your hands will not be able to outcompete your own commensals. If you wash steak, you won't be able to remove the food for the bacteria, they eat the steak itself - and cling to it for dear life, so you won't be able to remove them all, just reduce them.

The "reduce them" part is what has lead people to start washing in the hope of cooking meat with less bacteria on it, but it turns out that in practice, it's counterproductive, because of the cross contamination risk.

Desinfecting meat is a thing, but it's done on a commercial scale, e.g. when producing hamburger patties, and not done with soap. They then have to continue treating the meat to remove the stink of the disinfectant. Also, it achieves a longer shelf-life in high-risk environments (such as when mixing the meat of thousands of cows in a single batch), but certainly doesn't make the meat safe for raw consumption.

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  • The part about removing the bacteria's food source makes sense! Whether meat is sterile inside seems to be controversial. - e.g. North American Meat Institute says it is: meatinstitute.org/index.php?ht=a/GetDocumentAction/i/93526 and so does USDA: nal.usda.gov/research-tools/food-safety-research-projects/…
    – Andrew
    Commented Apr 22, 2023 at 15:04
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    Both links point out that muscle tissue is internally sterile, which isn't really relevant after the meat has been butchered to prepare for consumption. (Basically, if you swallow a cow whole, you "only" need to worry about the bacteria outside the muscle tissue.)
    – chepner
    Commented Apr 22, 2023 at 15:39
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    Meat of a healthy animal is sterile! That is the definition of “healthy”. It’s only that … certain … jurisdictions chose to not be hygienic when processing meat (And that is what the notion of raw meat being dangerous comes from.), and perhaps dip it in bleach later, while others keep contamination so low, and have veterinarians inspect the meat before and after, that you can literally eat the meat raw. (Which is common in Germany (Mettbrötchen), France (steak tartare), etc.). So his answer represents a particular context.
    – anon
    Commented Apr 23, 2023 at 10:20
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    Also, the bacteria on your knife or working surface are often able to sporify, and survive dry seasons, only to re-emerge and grow when they get wet. Some even for millennia. This is why tyndallization is can preserve foods that regular preservation cannot. … So washing it only reduces the bacteria. While reducing humidity and nutrition on it prevents more growth. Even a normally washed knife, dipped in sterile sugar water can grow bacteria via sterile means.
    – anon
    Commented Apr 23, 2023 at 10:26
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    @Evi1M4chine Well that and the fact that cooking will kill most bacteria, so while raw meat may be safe if it's been properly handled, cooked meat is much more likely to be safe. (Though of course over-cooking is bad as well, both in terms of flavor and because burnt charcoal is not great to eat.) Commented Apr 24, 2023 at 18:09
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I think this has already been done for a long time. Not all pathogens are destroyed by the pH of lemon, but many are and enough to render them safe. Soap would destroy better, but taste worse and might not be as safe even after rinsing.

from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ceviche

Ceviche[1][2] (Spanish pronunciation: [seˈβitʃe]) is a Hispanic America dish typically made from fresh raw fish cured in fresh citrus juices, most commonly lime or lemon.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h-DpNvYkDt0

Transcript:

0:09 now the water we'll be using came from a
0:11 pond and it's been sitting stagnant for
0:12 weeks as you can see it's completely
0:14 infested with some kind of rod-shaped
0:16 bacteria I added the lemon juice here
0:18 and you can see it take effect almost
0:20 immediately as it washes over the little
0:22 rods and they all stop moving lemon
0:24 juice is around 90 water with the
0:26 remaining 10 percent being natural acid
0:28 sugars vitamins flavonoids and terpenes
0:31 typically four to six percent of that 10
0:33 percent is citric acid which is doing
0:35 most of the heavy lifting and getting
0:37 rid of these germs here since it's such
0:39 a low PH citric acid can penetrate the
0:41 bacterial cell membrane and cause
0:43 important intracellular components to
0:45 leak out resulting in the death of the
0:46 bacteria it also contains other
0:48 antibacterial compounds like limonene
0:51 pinene and citrol which are kinds of
0:53 terpenes that can inhibit the growth of
0:55 bacteria by disrupting their cell
0:56 membrane and metabolism

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    I might suggest making clearer the distinction between washing and marinating - ceviche is typically marinated something like 30-60 minutes, while washing generally suggests something less than a minute.
    – Cascabel
    Commented Apr 24, 2023 at 18:13
  • marinating isn't done to kill bacteria (though it can be a side effect) but to infuse flavours and in the case of acidic marinade to soften the meat.
    – jwenting
    Commented May 4, 2023 at 6:26
  • Today, but historically many food practices come from keeping away nasties before people knew what they were doing. Many of these even taste good. Sauerkraut, salted fish, cheese, jerky, jams, and of course heating meat. I see no reason why Ceviche would be the outlier.
    – Zak
    Commented May 5, 2023 at 0:02

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