Meat, Poultry and Fish Safe Handling


One of the major concerns addressed by raw feeders is safe food handling to protect the human family and our companion animals. Knowing the difference between spoilage and pathogenic bacteria as well as following temperature and time guidelines make our decision to feed raw safer than if we ignore this information and these standards. Much of the information provided is directed at human safety, a standard also used by SoCal BARF members when feeding their companion animals. The information below is from the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) of the USDA and other sites that rely on USDA and FDA guidelines.

Sources of food contamination are almost as numerous and varied as the contaminants themselves. Bacteria and other infectious organisms are pervasive in the environment. Salmonella enters eggs directly from the hen. Bacteria, occasionally pathogenic, inhabit the surfaces of fruits and vegetables in the field. Molds and their toxic byproducts can develop in grains during unusually wet or dry growing seasons, damage and stress during harvesting, or during improper storage. Seafood may become contaminated from agricultural and other runoff, as well as by sewage, microorganisms, and toxins present in marine environments.

Many organisms that cause foodborne illness in humans can be part of the normal flora of the gastrointestinal tract of food-producing animals without any adverse effects to the animal. Milk, eggs, seafood, poultry, and meat from food-producing animals may become contaminated through contaminated feed, misuse of veterinary drugs, or poor farming practices, including production and harvesting activities, or disposal of solid waste on land. Foods may become contaminated during processing through malfunctioning or improperly sanitized equipment; misuse of cleaning materials; rodent and insect infestations; and improper storage. Foods may become contaminated in retail facilities and in the home through use of poor food handling practices, including time and temperature abuse and cross-contamination.

Spoilage bacteria are microorganisms too small to be seen without a microscope that cause food to deteriorate and develop unpleasant odors, tastes, and textures. These one-celled microorganisms can cause fruits and vegetables to get mushy or slimy or meat to develop a bad odor.  Most people would not choose to eat spoiled food. However, if they did, they probably would not get sick.

There are different spoilage bacteria and each reproduces at specific temperatures. Some can grow at the low temperatures in the refrigerator or freezer. Others grow well at room temperature and in the Danger Zone, temperatures between 41 and 135º. Bacteria will grow anywhere they have access to nutrients (protein) and water. Under the correct conditions, spoilage bacteria reproduce rapidly and the populations can grow very large. In some cases, they can double their numbers in as few as 20 minutes.

Pathogenic bacteria can and do cause illness in humans and possibly in pets. They grow rapidly in the Danger Zone and do not generally affect the taste, smell, or appearance of food. Food that is left too long at unsafe temperatures could be dangerous to eat but smell and look just fine. E. coli O157:H7, campylobacter, listeria and salmonella are examples of pathogenic bacteria. These bacteria are present in the food when purchased or become present through cross-contamination.

SoCal BARF distributes frozen product to increase food safety. Food stored constantly at 0 ° will always be safe unless pathogenic bacteria are present. Only the quality suffers with lengthy freezer storage. Freezing keeps food safe by slowing the movement of molecules, causing microbes to enter a dormant stage. Freezing preserves food for extended periods because it prevents the growth of microorganisms that cause both food spoilage and foodborne illness. Freezing to 0 ° inactivates any microbes -- bacteria, yeasts and molds - - present in food. Once thawed, however, these microbes can again become active, multiplying under the right conditions to levels that can lead to foodborne illness. Since they will then grow at about the same rate as microorganisms on fresh food, you must handle thawed items as you would any perishable food. Thawing product only to the extent that allows for separation into smaller quantities that will be re-frozen is safe. Once the product reaches 41º, however, bacteria will grow. Water lost in the thawing process will result in less moisture in the product, so it is important to re-freeze promptly to retain quality. Do not confuse the moisture in the product with any ice formed in freezing.

Freshness and quality at the time of freezing affect the condition of frozen foods. If frozen at peak quality, foods taste better than foods frozen near the end of their useful life. So freeze items you won't use quickly sooner rather than later. Store all foods at 0° F or lower to retain vitamin content, color, flavor and texture.

The freezing process itself does not destroy nutrients. In meat and poultry products, there is little change in nutrient value during freezer storage. Enzyme activity can lead to the deterioration of food quality. Enzymes present in animals, vegetables and fruit promote chemical reactions, such as ripening. Freezing only slows the enzyme activity that takes place in foods. It does not halt these reactions which continue after harvesting. Enzyme activity does not harm frozen meats or fish.

Proper packaging helps maintain quality and prevent "freezer burn." It is safe to freeze meat or poultry directly in its supermarket wrapping but this type of wrap is permeable to air. Unless you will be using the food in a month or two, overwrap these packages as you would any food for long-term storage using airtight heavy-duty foil, freezer plastic wrap or freezer paper, or place the package inside a freezer plastic bag. Use these materials or airtight freezer containers to repackage cases into smaller amounts. It is not necessary to rinse meat and poultry before freezing. Freeze unopened vacuum packages as is. If you notice that a package has accidentally been torn or has opened while food is in the freezer, the food is still safe to use; merely overwrap or rewrap it.

Freezer burn does not make food unsafe, merely dry in spots. It appears as grayish-brown leathery spots and is caused by air reaching the surface of the food. You can cut freezer-burned portions away, and some may discard heavily freezer-burned foods for quality reasons.

Color changes can occur in frozen foods. The bright red color of meat as purchased usually turns dark or pale brown depending on its variety. This may be caused by lack of oxygen, freezer burn or abnormally long storage. Freezing doesn't usually cause color changes in poultry. However, the bones and the meat near them can become dark. Bone darkening results when pigment seeps through the porous bones of young poultry into the surrounding tissues when the poultry meat is frozen and thawed. Meats in cryo-vac packaging may be purple in color until thawed.

Because freezing keeps food safe almost indefinitely, recommended storage times are for quality only. Many freezing charts are available on the web and can be easily searched. Cryo-vac packaging can extend the freezing life of products and is often not addressed in these charts.

Never defrost foods in a garage, basement, car, dishwasher or plastic garbage bag, out on the kitchen counter for longer than two hours, outdoors or on the porch. These methods can leave your foods unsafe to eat. Flies and other pests pose potential contamination threats and ambient temperatures can cause rapid thawing, moving the product quickly into the Danger Zone.

There are two safe ways to defrost food: in the refrigerator or in cold water. It's best to plan ahead for slow, safe thawing in the refrigerator. Small items may defrost overnight; most foods require a day or two. And large items like turkeys may take longer, approximately one day for each 5 pounds of weight.

For faster defrosting, place food in a leak proof plastic bag and immerse it in cold water. If the bag leaks, bacteria from the air or surrounding environment could be introduced into the food. Tissues can also absorb water like a sponge, resulting in a watery product. Check the water frequently to be sure it stays cold. Change the water every 30 minutes. After thawing, serve and refrigerate any left over product immediately.

Microwave-defrosting food is not recommended because some areas of the food may become warm and begin to cook. Raw feeders are warned never to cook bones that will be served to companion animals.

To determine the safety of foods when the power has been interrupted, check their condition and temperature. If food is partly frozen, still has ice crystals, or is as cold as if it were in a refrigerator (40 °F), it is safe to refreeze or use. It's not necessary to cook raw foods before refreezing. Be cautious of foods that have been warmer than 40 °F for more than two hours and any foods that have been contaminated by raw meat/poultry juices.

Food safety is everyone’s responsibility. SoCal BARF’s processors and suppliers have each created a Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) document required by the FDA and USDA that addresses food safety during processing and storage. We, too, advocate food safety by recommending that all sites use coolers for perishable product from the cold storage to the site, taking the surface temperature of products that appear to be compromised because of thawing, prohibiting the opening of cases for non-authorized reasons or by non-authorized personnel, and regular cleaning of equipment to prevent contamination and cross-contamination. Over 70% of refrigerators in the US contain lysteria so sanitizing is recommended. Our veteran crew and site hosts have been encouraged to become certified food safety managers and currently we have four members who have completed the class and successfully passed the test: Pat Puckett, Gilda Garcia, Cathi Kemp and Rudy Ortiz.

All SoCal BARF members take an active part in food safety by picking up their orders promptly from the sites and controlling contamination and pest issues in their homes. Each member should also be familiar with time and temperature as well as safe storage standards. Both our human families and companion animals rely on us for their health and safety.

Two sites that are recommended for reading and reference include