Jason Ertl

The implications of the current Covid-19 pandemic have resulted in a number of unique challenges in daily life. Months ago, it would have been hard to imagine a world where common, everyday products and services — such as hand sanitizer or haircuts — would become nearly unavailable.

In the situation of bars and restaurants being closed or under limited service, families have found themselves needing to cook from home more often and assume greater responsibility over their weekly meal plan. Although many dining establishments are in the process of slowly phasing back into normal business operation, there undoubtedly will be a cultural shift in dining habits as we uphold a priority for precaution and distance awareness in the near future. In doing so, social gatherings and family outings once planned for public areas might take advantage of more private alternatives in order to reduce unnecessary risk — especially to individuals of advanced age or illness.  

Covid-19 has caused us to rethink the activities we’ve grown accustomed to. But one thing unlikely to change will be our penchant for grilling and the American tradition of the outdoor barbeque. As the Midwest moves into summer time and warmer temperatures, outdoor cooking will become more and more frequent across neighborhoods. While the number of different options for the grilling season are endless, so too are the reasons why we should be saving room on our plates for pork and pork products.

Pork is an excellent source of many nutrients — including protein, zinc, iron and B-vitamins. Three ounces of pork is also a source of thiamin, selenium, niacin, phosphorus, riboflavin and potassium. Modern pork in the United States is leaner than it was even 20 years ago —  about 16 percent leaner, according to the National Pork Board. Cuts from the loin, such as pork chops and pork roast, are leaner than skinless chicken thigh, and pork tenderloin is as lean as skinless chicken breast, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture data. 

Americans have historically held red meat as the preferred source of protein, and even during these unprecedented times, that sentiment remains true. Despite the impacts of supply and grocery store accessibility, recent retail sales data from March and April 2020 show that U.S. meat department sales were up substantially in both value and volume, and accounted for more than a 20 percent increase compared to the same period a year ago (according to 210 Analytics, LLC).  

In an effort to alleviate the bottleneck and backups created by plant shutdowns or reduced processing capacity, many people are also taking the opportunity to support local pork producers and custom processors by buying whole or half hogs direct from the farm. This practice, coupled with the stocking up done in preparation for various shelter-in-place/stay at home orders, means many freezers are teeming with meat and ready for the patio season. The questions now are: what pork recipe to choose, how to prepare it, and how to do so safely.

Because no two people have the same taste preferences, it’s impossible to make a claim about which cut or recipe ranks among the best.  

The Pork Checkoff website (https://www.pork.org/cooking/) has a myriad of resources and further information about the different cuts of pork, where they come from, and featured recipes to help consumers bring the best out of the pork they purchase. If you’re still looking for inspiration on what to make for a dinner with family or friends, check out social media — another great source for recipes and preparation techniques. Liking or following certain food/cooking channels will supply these ideas directly to your daily feed, and can provide hours of satisfying video clips to relax and enjoy.

Food safety is top priority to the farmers, the processing plants, haulers and at the grocery store. This commitment to maintain safe food doesn't need to end at the checkout aisle. Whether you get your pork from a nationwide chain or a local butcher, similar practices should be taken to properly transport, store and prepare pork for the next home-cooked meal. 

Washing your hands has certainly become an essential part of daily life, and this practice should continue at the grill out — before and after handling or the preparation of food. Using warm water and soap for at least 20 seconds has been shown to be effective at reducing bacteria and other pathogens present on hands. Washing surfaces, as well as utensils, with hot, soapy water will also reduce the risk of harmful microorganisms. 

Raw meat provides an ideal environment for bacteria and germs to grow. After purchase or transport, it’s recommended to return raw pork or other meats to refrigeration as soon as possible — never allowing meat to sit in temperatures over 40 F for more than two hours. When outdoors (and especially during the dog days of summer) that threshold for time left outside refrigeration will be reduced to one hour at maximum.

Store raw meat, poultry and seafood on the bottom shelf of the refrigerator in order to prevent cross contamination from juices onto produce or other foods intended to be consumed raw. Cross contamination can also occur on dishware and cutting boards, so using separate plates or containers to handle raw meats, cooked meats, and fresh fruit and produce will greatly reduce that risk potential.  

A general guideline would be to cook or freeze raw meats within two or three days of purchase or thawing. Check the settings of the freezer to ensure the temperature doesn’t stray more than a few degrees away from 0 F. If kept in properly sealed packaging, the quality characteristics of raw and cooked meat products can be preserved for 3-4 and 2-3 months respectively. Although it won’t be dangerous from a food safety perspective, meat quality can begin to deteriorate beyond that window. 

Ideally, frozen pork and other meats should be thawed in the refrigerator. Microwave defrosting and submersion in cold water are also safe and effective ways to bring meat to a workable temperature. However, when done by this method, meat must be cooked or prepared immediately following. Never thaw meat at room temperature as there is a greater likelihood of meat surfaces reaching the unsafe zone outside of 38-40 F — leading to an increased risk for the development of bacteria or other food borne pathogens. 

In the past, it was common practice to cook pork to or beyond 160 F — out of fear of parasites such as Trichanella spiralis. Modern production practices, including indoor housing-based systems or use of anthelmintics, have essentially eliminated this problem in the United States. However, that tradition of overcooking pork remained — leaving choice cuts of meat dry, tough and with a less than-enjoyable eating experience.

In recognition of this issue, the U.S. Department of Agriculture revised their cooking temperature recommendations for whole muscle cuts of meat — including pork — in 2011. These revisions, based on a better understanding of the fat to lean composition of modern hogs and food-borne pathogens, lowered the safe thresholds for whole muscle pork cuts from 160 F down to 145 F with a 3-minute rest following removal from heat source. 

It is important to remember there are differences in the recommended temperatures meat products need to reach in order to be considered safe: Ground products (ground pork, beef), 160 F; whole muscle cuts of pork, lamb and beef),: 145 F (plus a 3 minute rest); and recooked ham (to reheat), 165 F. Reheat cooked hams packaged in USDA-inspected plants to 140 F.

A full list of safe minimum cooking temperature charts can be found at https://www.foodsafety.gov/food-safety-charts/safe-minimum-cooking-temperature.

While some grill masters may claim to know exactly when a particular cut of meat is “done”, the only true way to know is by using a meat thermometer. Digital meat thermometers are well worth the investment and reduce the margin for error in these types of cooking applications.  Inserting the thermometer into the center or thickest cross section of the meat, away from bone, fat or gristle will yield the most reliable reading in only a matter of seconds.

Check out the National Pork Checkoff website at https://www.pork.org/food-safety/ for more information about food safety and pork quality.

Jason Ertl is the Extension Educator for Ag Production Systems in Nicollet and Sibley Counties. He can be reached at ertlx019@umn.edu