How to Handle Meat Safely in Food Service

Make sure you're following food safety rules and best practices to protect customers from food poisoning and other health risks.
September 28, 2019

Food poisoning affects roughly four million Canadians every year; restaurants and other food service providers may be responsible for more than half of these cases. It’s important that anyone who handles meat products, especially those who handle food for the public, know how to do it safely to prevent food poisoning and other health risks.

To prevent food poisoning from red meat (beef, veal, lamb, pork) in your business, follow the rules below.

Note: For game meats, such as deer, moose, rabbit or bear, there are additional precautions you need to take as many wild game meats carry parasites which can be passed on to humans.

Accepting meat deliveries

  • Check that meat is delivered at 4°C / 40°F or below.
  • Check that frozen meat products are frozen solid and don’t show any signs of thawing on the packaging.
  • Make sure that meat is tightly wrapped and there are no tears or punctures in the packaging. 
  • Be wary if there is excessive liquid in packaging, which can be an indication of temperature abuse.
  • Verify packaging or best before dates (or both, if they are available).
  • Do a smell test (spoiled red meat will emit a distinct, pungent smell).
  • Check that the flesh is not sticky or slimy, which may indicate that bacteria has started to grow on the surface.

Storing meat

  • Store meat in the refrigerator at 4°C / 40°F or below or in the freezer at -18°C / 0°F or below.
  • Prioritize getting meat products into storage before less hazardous foods — you only have two hours at room temperature before meat must be thrown away*, so every minute counts.
  • Keep raw meat away from cooked food in the refrigerator and store it on the bottom shelf, below cooked foods or fresh produce. You don’t want juices to drip onto ready-to-eat foods and contaminate them.
  • Verify that your walk-in cooler, fridges and freezers are cold enough**. Make sure coolers are equipped with thermometers and employees are checking the temperatures regularly.
  • If you grind your own meat in-house, refrigerate and use it within 24 hours or freeze it.
  • Follow the "if in doubt, throw it out" principle when deciding whether raw meat in the refrigerator is safe to eat.***

*High-risk foods like meat must be thrown out after it’s been in the Temperature Danger Zone (4°C – 60°C / 40°F – 140°F) for two hours. This time is cumulative, meaning it’s the total amount of time that food has spent in the danger zone, so prep and display time counts.

**If your equipment is working properly but the temperature isn’t what it should be, check that boxes of food aren’t blocking the air vents. Overstocking refrigerators can also prevent cold air from circulating, so make sure you’re not ordering more than your refrigerator can handle.

***Fresh meat generally lasts between two and three days in the refrigerator. If you don’t have plans to use fresh meat in that time, we recommend freezing it to prevent unnecessary food waste.

Preparing meat

THAWING

  • Thaw frozen meat in the refrigerator at 4°C / 40°F or below — this can take time, so be sure to plan ahead.
  • If you absolutely cannot wait for meat to thaw in the refrigerator, you can thaw it using the defrost setting in your microwave. If you defrost meat using this method, cook it immediately afterwards!
  • If you cannot thaw meat in the refrigerator overnight or in the microwave, you may use the cold running water method. This method should be used as a last resort, as it is the riskiest method of the three. 

PREPARING

  • Clean and sanitize utensils, tools, equipment and food preparation surfaces (e.g. countertops, cutting boards) before and after working with meat, and whenever you’re switching between different types of food, to prevent cross-contamination.
  • Keep raw and cooked meats separated at all times — never reuse dishware, utensils or equipment that were used for raw meat without cleaning and sanitizing them first.
  • Wash your hands with soap and water before touching food and every time there is a risk of contamination.

COOKING

  • Cook food thoroughly, until it reaches the recommended internal temperature.*
  • Don’t guess about temperatures — use a meat thermometer to confirm that food is cooked all the way through.

*Raw or undercooked meats can contain high doses of dangerous bacteria that can cause food poisoning. The higher the temperature at the centre of the meat, the lower the risk. As a general rule, meat should be cooked to a minimum internal temperature of 74°C / 165°F; however, safe cooking temperatures vary depending on the type and cut of meat.

For example, whole cuts of steak may be cooked to a lower internal temperature than ground beef. This is because harmful bacteria typically live on the surface of the meat and are killed off by cooking both sides to the appropriate temperature, whereas ground beef mixes the surface meat (and any potential pathogens on it) into the interior.

So, for whole cuts of beef, veal or lamb, cook to at least 63°C / 145°F and allow to rest for at least three minutes before serving (the resting time gives the heat more time to kill bacteria). Cook ground beef to at least 71°C / 160°F.

Note: Pork should always be cooked to at least the high end of medium (at least 71°C / 160°F).

Prevent food poisoning with food safety training

Food poisoning is often caused by one (or a combination) of the following:

  1. improper time and temperature control of hazardous foods
  2. inadequate cleaning and sanitizing practices
  3. poor personal hygiene of Food Handlers

To ensure the safety of your customers, you need to take control of these three things in your restaurant or food service business. The easiest way to do so is through online food safety training and by enforcing food safety protocols and procedures in your business.

Find out more about food safety training and food handling certification in Canada.