Why Are Some Meats Eaten Raw And Some Are Not?

Imagine sitting down at your favorite sushi restaurant. The tea has been poured, the seaweed salad has been consumed, and you’re eagerly awaiting the arrival of your sushi platter. When it arrives, you see pink fatty salmon sitting atop the perfectly shaped rice, and your mouth begins to water.

Sushi’s appeal lies largely in its delicate balance, which brings out the flavor of the raw fish. However, why is it okay to consume raw fish and not raw beef, chicken or pork? Most people even shy away from raw eggs. At any restaurant, raw food could be the difference between success and failure.

Short Answer: Raw meat from certain animals, like fish, contain fewer pathogens—bacteria, viruses and parasites—that can infect humans. A number of factors affect whether you can eat raw meat, including preparation, hygienic conditions, the source of the meat, and the species of the animal.

Which meats can you eat raw?

While some people are incredibly paranoid about undercooked food, there are actually a number of meats you can eat raw.

Beef tartare, a popular dish in certain European nations, is ground raw beef with vegetable flavoring added to it. For beef tartare and other similar raw delicacies, it’s important that the food is fresh. Meat that is a few days old is the perfect breeding ground for pathogens to develop and multiply.

What about rare steak? The inside of the beef is minimally cooked, in “rare” cases, with only the outsides getting a char. Raw beef can contain bacteria on the surface, but many parasites don’t penetrate the dense meat, so most of the danger lies on the exterior. That’s why a rare steak, once the outside has been cooked, is perfectly safe to eat, in most cases.

Fish is a great raw option for those who can’t stand the idea of waiting for something to cook. Sashimi and sushi restaurants are wildly popular all over the world, and most people don’t bat an eye at eating raw fish.

The reason for this is that most fish are caught in cold waters and then frozen before being served. On the off-chance that there are parasites or cysts in the fish, they are killed during this process. There is also a huge difference—evolutionarily speaking—between fish and mammals, and far fewer pathogens are able to “cross over”.

Finally, fish that you buy is usually not ground or mixed, which is common in beef, chicken and pork (e.g., ground beef). This means that one infected fish won’t be able to also infect large volumes of commercially sold fish.

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Which meats can’t be eaten raw and why?

Though beef can be eaten raw in some dishes, there are a few pathogens to be wary of that are present in the meat. One is beef tapeworm, which causes almost 45 million cases worldwide each year, and is caused by eating raw or undercooked meat. Another is Toxoplasma gondii. This parasite spreads through cat feces into other animal’s muscles, where it lies dormant, waiting to end up in a cat to complete its life cycle. However, in the absence of a cat stomach, humans may also be infected.

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Raw pork isn’t something you hear about too often, but that’s more because of the taste and consistency of raw pork, versus cooked pork. Pork is also far more susceptible to trichinosis, a parasitic infection of the tissue, as well as worm cysts. Pigs who grow up in pens and don’t have access to a normal omnivorous diet pose a high risk for these illnesses, which can be passed on to humans.  This is concerning, since pork is one of the most widely consumed meats in the world. With the increasing trend of eating raw food, some parasitic diseases that were once considered insignificant now pose a threat.

Even the thought of raw chicken turns people’s stomachs, immediately conjuring up the word Salmonella and the violent gastrointestinal days to follow. It’s true that chickens tend to harbor a large amount of Salmonella and E. coli, particularly when kept caged without access to their normal diet. However, there are some who believe that properly pastured, healthy chickens can be eaten raw, but even so, few people forego a perfectly cooked piece of chicken for a slippery raw breast.

How do you know meat is safe to eat raw?

As explained above, there is not a black-and-white answer when it comes to eating raw meat, but the most important factors to consider are how the meat is prepared, where it came from, and under what conditions the animal has been raised.

Even when it comes to sushi, fish that has been thawed out and refrozen or refrigerated for an extended period might not be your best choice. Eat sushi from restaurants that get their fish fresh or within 2-3 days. Don’t worry… there are plenty of delicious and reputable sushi spots out there!

When it comes to beef, you want to ensure that the cows were not raised in tightly packed conditions and forced to eat grain from troughs their whole life. Words like free-range and organic have become slightly misleading in recent years, as the definition of these terms is subjective.

Look for grass-fed beef if you want to make steak tartare or ensure that your raw beef is safe. Cows evolved to digest every nutrient available in grass, but the same isn’t true of grain. A strong, grass-fed cow that spent its days roaming a pasture will have a healthy immune system and pose little threat to people who choose to eat it raw. In other words… not like these guys…

In terms of chicken and eggs, you want to find chickens that have been “pastured”, which is basically the same as grass-fed. This means that they were able to enjoy their proper diet of insects and grubs (they’re omnivores, after all), rather than purely chicken feed. This gives them a strong immune system, which they won’t have if they are on a purely “vegetarian” diet. Also, ground chicken poses many of the same risks as beef and pork, allowing potentially contaminated meat to blend with perfectly good meat from countless other animals.

With this being said, there is evidence that even grass-fed and pastured chickens are not completely free from pathogens. In fact, one study found that pastured chickens are at an increased risk of contracting pathogens. It appears that increased interaction with microbes from the soil and the surroundings might increase the risk of contracting certain pathogens. Even so, overall, these meats are superior and if bought fresh and from a high-quality vendor, they should be safe.

Pork is something that few people would ever choose to eat raw, as the flavor and texture improves significantly when it’s cooked. Considering the conditions in which so many pigs live, and how few are allowed to roam freely and eat their preferred diet, it’s best to avoid trichinosis and keep your bacon cooked!

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Basically, you can potentially trust raw meat from farms and distributors that employ humane and sustainable methods of raising their animals, but remember, there is always a certain amount of risk with raw meat, so choose wisely!

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About the Author

John Staughton is a traveling writer, editor, publisher and photographer who earned his English and Integrative Biology degrees from the University of Illinois. He is the co-founder of a literary journal, Sheriff Nottingham, and the Content Director for Stain’d Arts, an arts nonprofit based in Denver. On a perpetual journey towards the idea of home, he uses words to educate, inspire, uplift and evolve.

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