Many home cooks say they don’t wash their hands after handling raw bacon because it’s cured. But should they be doing so?
That’s precisely what I’m about to help you answer in today’s blog post. Here are all the facts you need to know on the topic.
Before we get to bacon, let’s take a moment to talk about what makes washing your hands when handling raw pork necessary in the first place.
Raw meat, according to the U.S. Center for Disease Control (CDC), can contain Salmonella, E.coli, Yersinia enterocolitica, as well as other harmful bacteria. Pork can also harbor infectious parasites, such as roundworm or tapeworm.
The most prominent risk of handling raw pork (or eating it undercooked) is getting infected with trichinosis, a type of roundworm infection. Whereas mild cases may cause no signs or symptoms, severe cases can result in complications such as meningitis or pneumonia.
How big of a risk is this, exactly?
A 2012 study by Consumer Reports found that 69% of pork chops and samples of ground pork from grocery stores tested positive for Yersinia enterocolitica, a bug known to cause infections in about 100,000 Americans a year, especially children.
Only 23% of the samples had none of the bacteria that they were tested for. Statistically speaking, there’s a 3/4 chance that the pork chops or ground pork you brought back with you from the store contains a pathogen you don’t want on your hands and in your body!
This is a problem because of something food experts call cross-contamination, or the act of involuntary spreading pathogens from one food to another. Studies have repeatedly shown that most of food-borne illnesses are caused by cross-contamination. And cross-contamination happens for two main reasons: poor hygiene or mishandling.
Yes, cooking is fun. And, for many of us, pan-frying pork chops or cooking up a hearty stew is how we express ourselves and give our love to others.
As home cooks, we also have the responsibility of keeping our diners safe, especially from food-borne illnesses that are easily preventable by following basic kitchen hygiene.
To get there, you need to pick up a couple of habits for whenever you’re handling raw pork (and, as a matter of fact, raw meat in general, whether that’s red meat, poultry, or seafood).
How to Handle Raw Pork Safely
First, always wash your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. This protects not only you, but also everything in your home you touch from that moment on, from the pathogens possibly present in the raw pork you just touched.
Second, sanitize all utensils and work surfaces that came into contact with the meat as soon as you’re done handling it. This includes your chef’s knife, cutting board, grilling fork, the plate you put it in, etc.
As a general rule of thumb, anything that came into contact with the skin or juices of the meat should be thoroughly sanitized to eliminate any leftover bacteria and prevent cross-contamination.
The easiest way to do this is by hand-cleaning your utensils with hot soapy water in your sink, and wiping your countertops with a cloth dipped in a cleaning solution of 9 parts water, 1 part bleach.
Some home cooks go the extra mile and wipe their knives and cutting boards with the water-and-bleach solution, too. Ultimately, this comes down to your personal choice and feeling of safety—both methods work equally well.
So far, so good. We’ve established that raw pork can (and often does) harbor harmful pathogens and that you should be washing your hands and cleaning your cutlery, cutting board, and countertops after handling it.
But how relevant is this for raw bacon?
Can Raw Bacon Cause Cross-Contamination?
“Foods such as raw meats and raw meat products for example sausages and bacon can contain harmful bacteria,” according to the Scottish agency Food Standards Scotland.
“These raw meats and meat products can be made safe by cooking which kills bacteria. However, the harmful bacteria on these foods can be spread to cooked/ready-to-eat foods either by direct contact or via people and objects.”
Raw bacon can contain bacteria or be infested with parasites dangerous to your health. Contrary to what most people believe, you should always wash your hands with soap and water, for a minimum of 20 seconds, after handling raw bacon (and you definitely shouldn’t eat it).
Uncooked bacon is raw pork, and you should treat it as such. It can harbor the most prevalent bacteria in uncooked meat, as well as Toxoplasma gondii, Trichinella, and tapeworms.
Even when cured, know that smoking and curing won’t kill the larvae of most parasites in infected meats (Mayo Clinic); only cooking it till crisp and brown will.
The bottom line?
Yes, you should wash your hands whenever you touch raw bacon. In fact, when storing, handling, and cooking it, you should take every precaution as you’d do with raw pork.
I know this isn’t something recipes tell you, and you won’t see many television chefs or YouTubers talking about it, either. The reality is that they didn’t pay that much attention in kitchen hygiene class at cooking school, or their editors cut the scenes of them washing their hands altogether (who expects to watch scenes like these, anyway?).
So the right things and stick to the basics. Wash your hands, and don’t forget to sanitize your kitchen utensils and working surfaces. It’s just one of those things you don’t want to be forced to learn the hard way!