Why Are Some Meats Eaten Raw And Some Are Not?

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Imagine tucking in at your favorite sushi restaurant… the tea is poured, the seaweed salad has been consumed, and you’re eagerly awaiting the arrival of your first sushi roll. The plate of sushi arrives, packed with raw fish, and your mouth begins to water. While sushi isn’t everyone’s favorite food, no one bats an eye at the fact that most sushi contains raw fish.

People would have a much bigger issue if someone invited them to try out a new raw chicken restaurant that just opened. Raw pork? Raw beef? Not something you see on many – if any – menus… so why is there this huge discrepancy? Why can some meats be eaten raw, while others can’t?

Short Answer: Certain forms of raw meat are far less prone to pathogens, bacteria or viruses that can infect humans. A number of factors affect whether you can eat raw meat, including preparation, hygienic conditions, source of the meat, and species of the animal.

Raw Meat in Your Diet

While some people are incredibly paranoid about their food being undercooked, there are actually a number of meats that you can eat raw. Believe it or not, you probably already do. Beef tartare is a popular dish in certain European nations, and that consists of raw beef. Eating raw beef isn’t widespread, but people who prefer their steaks rare are leaning towards the raw side of that meat. Raw beef can contain bacteria on the surface, but parasites can’t penetrate the dense meat, so most of the dangers lie on the exterior. That’s why a rare steak, once the outside has been cooked, is perfectly safe to eat in most cases. Furthermore, there are few pathogens that cross between cows and humans, decreasing the risk even further.

Raw pork isn’t something you hear about too often, but that is more because of the taste and consistency of raw pork, versus cooked pork. Cooking this meat tenderizes the meat, and improves the flavor significantly. 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 have a high risk for these illnesses, which can be passed on to humans.

Even the thought of raw chicken turns people’s stomachs in many cases, 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 up without access to their normal diet. However, there are some who believe that properly pastured, healthy chickens can be eaten raw, but few people forego a perfectly cooked piece of chicken for a slippery raw breast…

Fish, on the other hand, is the 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 is caught in cold waters and then frozen before being served to you. 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.

How Do You Know When It’s Safe?

As we showed 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 – 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 even your raw beef is safe. Cows evolved to digest every nutrient that is 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 will enjoy their proper diet of insects and grubs (they’re omnivores, after all), rather than purely chicken feed. This will allow them to have a strong immune system, which they won’t have if they are on a purely “vegetarian” diet. Also, ground chicken faces many of the same risks as beef and pork, allowing potentially contaminated meat to blend with perfectly good meat from countless other animals.

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 widely and eat their preferred diet, it’s best to avoid trichinosis and keep your bacon cooked!

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!

References:

  1. Raw Foodism – Wikipedia
  2. Microbial Pathogens in Raw Pork, Chicken, and Beef: Benefit Estimates for Control Using Irradiation – Oxford Academic (Oxford University Press)
  3. Time.com
  4. Sushi Delights and Parasites: The Risk of Fishborne and Foodborne Parasitic Zoonoses in Asia – Oxford Academic (Oxford University Press)
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About the Author:

John Staughton is a traveling writer, editor and publisher who earned his English and Integrative Biology degrees from the University of Illinois in Champaign, Urbana. He is the co-founder of a literary journal, Sheriff Nottingham, and calls the most beautiful places in the world his office. On a perpetual journey towards the idea of home, he uses words to educate, inspire, uplift and evolve.

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