Food Safety and Culture

Scientific American has an excerpt from Myhrvold, Young and Bilet’s magnum opus, Modernist Cuisine, in which they discusses the often arbitrary, subjective and culturally bound nature of “food safety” rules and practices.

In decades past, pork was intrinsically less safe than other meats because of muscle infiltration by Trichinella and surface contamination from fecal-borne pathogens like Salmonella and Clostridium perfringens . As a result, people learned to tolerate overcooked pork, and farms raised pigs with increasing amounts of fat—far more fat than is typical in the wild ancestors of pigs such as wild boar. The extra fat helped to keep the meat moist when it was overcooked.

Since then… producers have vastly reduced the risk of contamination through preventive practices on the farm and in meat-processing facilities. Eventually the FDA relaxed the cooking requirements for pork; they are now no different than those for other meats. The irony is that few people noticed—­culinary professionals and cookbook authors included….

After decades of consuming overcooked pork by necessity, the American public has little appetite for rare pork; it isn’t considered traditional. With a lack of cultural pressure or agitation for change by industry groups, the new standards are largely ignored, and many new publications leave the old cooking recommendations intact.

Clearly, cultural and political factors impinge on decisions about food safety. If you doubt that, note the contrast between the standards applied to pork and those applied to beef. Many people love rare steak or raw beef served as carpaccio or steak tartare, and in the United States alone, millions of people safely eat beef products, whether raw, rare, or well-done. Beef is part of the national culture, and any attempt to outlaw rare or raw steak in the United States would face an immense cultural and political backlash from both the consumers and the producers of beef.

…Cultural and political factors also explain why cheese made from raw milk is considered safe in France yet viewed with great skepticism in the United States. Traditional cheese-making techniques, used correctly and with proper quality controls, eliminate pathogens without the need for milk pasteurization. Millions of people safely consume raw milk cheese in France, and any call to ban such a fundamental part of French culture would meet with enormous resistance there….

Raw milk cheese aged less than 60 days cannot be imported into the United States and cannot legally cross U.S. state lines. Yet in 24 of the 50 states, it is perfectly legal to make, sell, and consume raw milk cheeses within the state. In most of Canada raw milk cheese is banned, but in the province of Quebec it is legal.

One point they don’t note is that there may be multiple equilibria–that is, it may be more dangerous to produce raw milk cheese in a country or region without a history of producing raw milk cheese than elsewhere. Still, this is no reason we shouldn’t be eating more horse.


I agree, horse is delicious. But maybe its an acquired taste, but I hate not fully cooked pork. Pork also gets different texture than beef that has been overcooked.

On the other hand, I also dislike rare beef so maybe I just gravitate towards the more fully cooked meats (I do like salmon and tuna sashimi though, but even there, the texture of the cooked fish seems to be more to my liking)?

It's a stretch to call horse a staple here in Japan, but I do like to take visitors to restaurants to eat raw horse and chicken.

any attempt to outlaw rare or raw steak in the United States would face an immense cultural and political backlash from both the consumers and the producers of beef.

There have been such attempts. Have the authors not noticed?

When we first lived in Oz, South Australia was the only state where it was legal to eat 'roo. So we did. Delicious.

Obviosusly in 1850 everyone everywhere was producing raw milk cheese. So why, in France, the home of Louis Pasteur, did the method persist while in the U.S. we abandoned it? Was there more TB in the U.S.? Were Americans more health-conscious and less food conscious? Were American dairies bigger and more commercial faster than the French.

Horse meat is taboo in America not because of health concerns, but because horses are considered more pet-like than other domesticated animals such as cattle and pigs.

I started cooking pork steaks and chops to medium doneness a while back and can highly recommend it. I would think that the cost of monitoring and detection (of microorganisms) has fallen so low, and the speed with which the information can be shared increased so much, that it makes little sense to place burdens on the cook in regards to dealing with contaminants in meat. Aside from the obvious measures involved in not introducing new ones, of course.
We also overcook chicken, by the way, at least by the standards of the French.

Aren't the people who are anti horse slaughter mostly on ethical or aesthetic grounds. I never saw a public health aspect to horse meat.

The article talks about farmers raising pork that is more fatty to suit it to longer cooking. Is this done by breeding selection or feed control?

So if two adjecent states in the US both allow legal raw milk production is it still illegal to transport it across the border? Federal jurisdiction always confuses me. What body of law dictates what the feds can and cannot regulate? Food safety hardly seems a federal subject.

Rare beef isn't as widely accepted in the US as the article says. Isn't steak tartare banned by most city rules on restaurents?

In this case, the Commerce Clause of the US Constitution gives the feds the power to regulate. Anything pertaining to "interstate commerce" can be regulated by the federal government, which clearly includes products crossing state lines.

I would say the Commerce Clause only applies if the person is engaged in an act of commerce. If they're just going to visit a friend, or returning from visiting a friend, it's not clear it should apply.

Why we would have a federal law in a case where the federal government is clearly deferring to the states is interesting. It seems that the law prohibiting the cheese crossing state boundaries is a transfer of custom responsibilities from the state to the federal level - as if for some reason the federal government can police it better.

Or perhaps it's just that the Federal courts would have to hear cases relating to people from a state allowing the good going into states outlawing it and then getting charged the state they are not a citizen of. This is the low cost solution -- no thinking involved, no balancing of competing legal systems, no complicated arguments about laws being properly posted/known....get caught there's no defense other than proving you didn't do it.

Re: john

Under modern (post new deal) commerce clause jurisprudence, threw are few limitso and that's easily within federal reach. The Court said the federal government could regulate even a farmer's production of wheat for his own consumption, as such self production had effects on interstate commerce, in the aggregate, if not the individual case.

Your comment in the post that we should eat more horse is oddly related to the preceding post which covered an organization that took care of old racehorses.

Telling the latter something about fundraising or the use of the market?

Maybe Tyler's idea of taking care is the right sauce, or rub.

Rahul - steak tartare is not the same thing as rare beef. Steak tartare is ground beef, spiced, and often served with an egg. Wikipedia notes that sometimes thin slices of high-quality cuts of beef are used, but a 1-inch thick uncooked steak is not a steak tartare. Most Americans *love* rare steaks. (I don't - I prefer the taste of beef cooked medium-well, even though I generally prefer sashimi to cooked fish.)

Right. Sorry. I should have said "raw" beef, not rare.

I'm a bit surprised at the claim "nobody noticed it". In the early 1980s I was working in restaurants and serving pork and salmon medium and even medium rare was fairly common in even moderately upscale restaurants.

Some cultural factoids without a cohesive point: In 1992 New Jersey banned the sale of eggs prepared "sunny side up." Once people actually found out about the ban, it didn't last a week. As a kid in Long Island I remember seeing horsemeat in cans next to all the other dog food. I guess it wasn't that taboo. Yook hwe, the Korean version of steak tartare, is delicious. You can now buy Spanish jamon in the U.S. after a long ban, so maybe things are looking up. Down with "health" paternalism!

Things are looking good indeed. USA legalized Absinthe. Chicago repealed its ban on foie gras. And Fugu is available although heavily licensed. Funnily of the 17 restaurants licensed to sell Fugu in the US, 11 are in New York City. I wonder why. Are New Yorkers that much more adventurous about food than the rest of the nation?

Only large cities can support high-end sushi and high-end sushi chefs is my guess. I tried fugu once at Sushi Yasuda. I wasn't enthralled by it. I also wasn't poisoned, so thank you Mr. Yasuda. My feeling is that something besides the taste of fugu drives demand.

Well, there's the equivalent of steak tartare for pork. Goes well with a boozy party. Very popular in Germany, where it's called Mett, and eaten well spiced. I miss it, though one could make it oneself here, I suppose.

Modern hybrid hogs have less fat than chicken and, consequently, zero flavor. This is why all this nonsense about brining and such is so popular.

The finest meat is from lard hogs, which were raised specifically for fat content. Properly raised hogs provide fat that is nutritionally and metabolically superior to any vegetable(canola, safflower, etc...) oil including olive oil.

"As a result, people learned to tolerate overcooked pork, and farms raised pigs with increasing amounts of fat—far more fat than is typical in the wild ancestors of pigs such as wild boar. The extra fat helped to keep the meat moist when it was overcooked."

Not quite. Hog lard had a high value prior to creation of industrial seed oils hence the reason for high fat hogs. It was all economics.

I recommend we eat more psilocybin mushrooms.

One force working quite well against the sale of raw milk products is large dairy producers. If you tell your story without mentioning them, you're leaving out an important part.

Exactly. Actually, the most recent true studies I could find on raw vs. pasteurized milk are from the 1970s, and they find that the probability of harmful bacteria is actually a bit *lower* in raw milk (owing primarily to poor handling practices of pasteurized milk and the fact that non-harmful cultures in raw milk can prevent harmful strains from getting a foothold). If the animals are pasture-fed and the udders are kept relatively clean, raw milk is essentially safe to drink. The probability-adjusted danger to a fetus is a bit higher with raw milk, but otherwise expected harm is about the same.

In other words, the only reason raw milk is outlawed, as opposed to regulated for animal conditions, is lobbying from large dairy producers. I think the real story tends to be less about culture and more about *perceived* food safety and politics.

The idea that modern pigs are fattier than traditional breeds seems counterintuitive. In the UK, we're seeing a reaction against overly lean pigs, with artisan producers reviving old, fattier breeds like the Gloucester Old Spot and Middle White in reaction to boring lean supermarket meat.

I second the comment on the Mett.

I love horse. It is also much better for jerky than beef.

5,000 years ago Eurasia was roamed by herds of horses like the buffalo roamed America. Horses were domesticated for meat before they were ridden.

I was in Hamburg over the weekend, and was treated to the popular German dish, Mett:

Raw pork, minced and served up for breakfast. It was delicious. This is possible because plenty of places serve it, and butchers are very able to serve super-fresh meat up for mincing. If there was only one Mett cafe in town, I would be very suspicious of eating there unless I could hear porcine squealing out back.

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