Understanding Food Safety Of Home Made Jerky

Beef jerky is a snack food known at least since ancient Egyptian times. In early times, humans made beef jerky from animal meat that was too big to eat all at once, such as bear, buffalo, or even whales. North American Indians mixed ground dried meat with dried fruit or suet to make "pemmican". "Biltong" is actually a dried meat made in many African countries. Our word "jerky" came from the Spanish word "charque."

Beef jerky is a product that is a nutrient-dense meat that has been made lightweight removing moisture by drying. A pound of meat or poultry weighs about four ounces after being made into jerky (most manufacturers will add sugar, spices and other items to help to offset this). Due to the fact that moisture is removed down to "safe levels", the product is considered shelf stable. It can be stored without any refrigeration " making it a handy food for backpackers and others who don't have access to refrigerators.

With commercially manufactured beef jerky products, the process is monitored in federally inspected plants by inspectors of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service. Products may be cured or uncured, dried, and may be smoked or un-smoked, air or oven dried. At commercial plants, both internal meat temperatures and water activity percentages (among other things) are continuously monitored and validated to regulate processes and assure safe quality products to consumers.

When raw meat or poultry is dehydrated at home, usually in a slightly opened warm oven or a food dehydrator, you should understand that it is possible to make beef jerky which will be stored on the shelf, but that any pathogenic bacteria are likely to survive the dry heat of a warm oven and especially the 130 to 140 °F of a typical inexpensive food dehydrator. This means, if you bought meat that was contaminated or somehow had something within your process that was contaminated that you introduced to the meat, you would have a high probability that your finished product would be contaminated upon completion of the dehydrating process. If meat is not contaminated and you proceed as typical, you won’t have any issues.

Illnesses due to Salmonella and E. coli from homemade beef jerky continue to raise questions about the safety of traditional drying methods for making venison and beef jerky. The USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline's current recommendation for making beef jerky safely is to heat meat to 160 °F and poultry to 165 °F before starting the dehydrating process. This step assures that any bacteria present will be destroyed by wet heat. Most dehydrator instructions do not include this step, and a dehydrator will not reach temperatures high enough to heat meat to 160 °F. After heating, maintain a constant dehydrator temperature of 130 to 140 °F during the drying process is important because the process must be fast enough to dry food before it spoils, and it must remove enough water that microorganisms are unable to grow.

The risk in dehydrating meat and poultry without first cooking it to a safe temperature is that the dehydrator will not heat the meat to 160 °F and poultry to 165 °F " temperatures at which bacteria are destroyed " before it dries. After drying, bacteria become much more heat resistant. Within a dehydrator or low-temperature oven, evaporating moisture absorbs most of the heat. Thus, the meat itself does not begin to rise in temperature until most of the moisture has evaporated. Therefore, when the dried meat temperature finally begins to rise, the bacteria have become more heat resistant and are more likely to survive. If these surviving bacteria are pathogenic, they can cause food borne illness to those consuming the beef jerky. If you must make beef jerky at home, here are some recommendations directly from the USDA for helping to insure your protection:

1) Always wash hands thoroughly with soap and water before and after working with meat products.

2) Use clean equipment and utensils.

3) Keep meat and poultry at 40 °F or slightly below; use or freeze ground beef and poultry within 2 days; whole red meats, within 3 to 5 days.

4) Defrost frozen meat in the refrigerator, not on the kitchen counter.

5) Marinate meat in the refrigerator. Don't re-use marinades. Using a brine will help to keep the meat moist while attempting to reach the 160 °F or 165 °F as described below.

6) Steam or roast meat to 160 °F and poultry to 165 °F as measured with a food thermometer before dehydrating it.

7) Dry meats in a food dehydrator that has an adjustable temperature dial and will maintain a temperature of at least 130 to 140 °F throughout the drying process.

There are other special considerations when making homemade beef jerky from venison or other wild game that are also worth noting. Wild game meat is not regulated or reviewed by the USDA prior to processing. Venison can also, in some instances, be heavily contaminated with fecal bacteria, as directly related to the degree of varying with the hunter's skill, wound location, and other factors. While fresh beef is usually rapidly chilled, deer carcasses are typically held at ambient temperatures (whatever the temperature is outside at the time of the kill), potentially allowing bacteria multiplication. Reaching internal meat temperatures of 160 °F with wild game meat is even more important as the risk of contamination is definitely higher.

So what type of "insurance" do you require for your home made beef jerky adventures? It really is up to you.

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About The Author, Tommy Stabosz
Tommy Stabosz is the owner of Toxic Tommy, gourmet beef jerky products, in Cleveland, Ohio. Toxic Tommy offers many flavors and varieties of beef jerky, beef smokie sticks, smoked meats, popcorn and candies. http://www.toxictommy.com