Salmonella and Campylobacter. Sigh. I have grown enough of these in a single experiment to bring down a medium sized city.
Oh it’s easy, when you use growth media designed to make them grow fast. It’s how we find them quickly when there’s an outbreak. It’s also how we test food before it goes on sale. Sometimes it’s in the supermarkets before the test is complete but we can recall it pretty fast.Heavy contamination will show up in 24 hours but it takes about 4 days to be certain it’s a negative.
We test for other things too but the big names in chicken and turkey and general poultry are Salmonella and Campylobacter.
At the end of the experiment, everything goes into a big pressure cooker called an autoclave. Fifteen minutes in there and there is no life anywhere inside it. It’s not magic, it’s exactly the same principle as a home pressure cooker, just scaled up so you can fit a disobedient technician into it. In the past, we actually used home pressure cookers in the lab as benchtop sterilisers for small amounts. of stuff. Now there are custom built benchtop ones. They do the same thing but they look more sciency and they have timers so they don’t go bang if you forget.
For these two nasties, all you need is to have the centre of the meat exceed 80 decrees C and they’re dead. Cook that chicken properly, don’t handle salad with chicken grease on your fingers and you’re fine. It’s only dangerous when it’s raw, or when you let it contaminate stuff you aren’t going to cook.
I’ve never had either infection despite my cavalier cooking methods and despite working with them (and other nasties I haven’t personally caught) for almost 40 years. They aren’t hard to kill.
They are, however, very hard to get rid of at source. For Salmonella, many UK poultry farms use a vaccine introduced via drinking water. It won’t wipe them out but it will reduce their numbers. On a bird carcass, Salmonella is mostly surface contamination. Inside surfaces too – it lives in the guts and can get into some internal organs. Still, that’s easy. As long as the surface is cooked, it’s dead.
Campylobacter is a little different. This one lives in the gut too but it can get into muscle tissue. It can be inside the meat. That’s the one you need to kill by cooking the chicken all the way through. Getting the centre of the meat past 80C is enough – you don’t need 200C in the centre. If you achieve that, you have a roast chicken that will shatter like glass when you try to carve it and will probably be about the size of a quail.
Minced/ground meat is a special problem. For any meat. If you have a beef steak you can flash-fry the outside and the inside can be pretty much raw. The only contamination is on the outside. Ostrich steaks are also best quick-cooked. Even though they are birds they don’t seem to suffer Campylobacter infections.
If you make steak mince, you have mixed the outside contamination all through the final product. It’s now internally contaminated and – as with sausages and burgers – you need it cooked right through.
So with poultry mince you will now have both Salmonella and Campylobacter all through the finished product. Nasty.
Not if you cook it thoroughly. It’s mince. If there are no pink bits left then all the bits are cooked and the nasties are dead. I admit, when making any dish with mince, I cook the mince completely before starting with any added sauces. I take no chances with high risk foods.
Should the mince be a no-risk food? That’s impossible. You can never be sure the processing plant is perfectly sterile even if the starting product is clear of pathogens. The processing plant is staffed by people and if you sterilise your staff in an autoclave their productivity will suffer and you might get nasty letters from their relatives. People carry diseases. It happens. Deal with it.
How do you deal with it? Cook it thoroughly and wash your hands after handling raw meats. Disinfect kitchen surfaces (the spray stuff is good enough, you don’t need a flamethrower) and wipe down with disposable paper towels, not a cloth. A contaminated cloth is a stupid thing to have in a kitchen.
That’s it. That’s really it. Poultry, mince, any raw meat is a risk but it’s an easily managed risk. Just do what your grandparents did. It worked for them and it’ll work for you.
Each year, the article says, 830,000 Americans get sick from eating contaminated poultry. There is no excuse for this. All it takes is a few simple things – proper cooking and kitchen hygiene.
You are not going to eradicate these bacteria at source. You’re dealing with living organisms and chickens are, it must be said, among the most disgusting of living things.
But they taste so good. Just cook them properly.