Kibbeh is a Middle Eastern and North African dish traditionally prepared with a combination of red meat, usually beef or lamb, raw onion, cracked wheat, and spices. Although there are some versions of the dish that are baked or fried (such as Kibbeh raas, quipe, Kubba halab, or Kibbeh bil sinieh), others (like Kibbeh nayyeh) are prepared and served raw.
Raw Meat and Outbreaks
Raw meat has been linked to numerous food poisoning outbreaks. Kibbeh nayyeh has specifically been linked to an outbreak as well. Dangerous bacteria such as E. coli and Salmonella are often present in raw meat and are known to cause serious illness with symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and fever. In more severe cases, food poisoning from E. coli can cause long-term consequences such as hemolytic-uremic syndrome (HUS) which can result in kidney failure or even death in young children. Food poisoning is particularly dangerous for young children, pregnant women, or anyone with a weakened immune system.
When it comes to meat products, harmful bacteria, if they are there, will largely be found on the outside of a muscle cut (such as a steak, loin or roast). This means that the risk of food poisoning can be significantly reduced by cooking the outside; heat will kill the harmful bacteria on the surface. Ground meat foods such as kibbeh are different because the outside of many cuts of meat, or the trimmings, are cut up, ground, and mixed together. The surface of the meat now becomes the inside and even a small amount of contamination can be spread throughout the entire batch. Grinding meat at a restaurant or in the home does not make the final product any safer; if the outside is contaminated, the ground meat will be as well.
How USDA Works to Keep You Healthy (And You Can Too)
USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service inspects the production of meat at slaughter and processing facilities nationwide and federal rules require sampling and testing of meat products. That said, consumers have role in making sure that proper steps are taken to reduce the risks from harmful bacteria that can still be found on the surface of meat that is then used for ground meat products such as kibbeh.
Although some cultures that traditionally eat kibbeh served raw take steps to reduce the risk of illness such as controlling the temperature of the meat and freshly grinding it with clean blades, none of these practices can ensure that the meat being eaten is actually safe. The only way to reduce the potential for foodborne infection from eating ground raw beef or lamb is to cook it completely through until the ground meat reaches 160oF as measured by a meat thermometer. No other method of preparation is safe or recommended.
Because there are alternative preparations available for the traditional kibbeh dish, such as frying or baking, it is possible to eat the dish safely if the meat is cooked to 160oF as measured by a meat thermometer. Eating the raw version, though, comes with a high risk of foodborne infection and illness.
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The same holds true for cappuccino, steak tartare and many other dishes eaten raw. I have eaten raw kibbe all my life, and not once have I been sick. Salmonella is not killed by cooking, the issue is contaminated meat either raw or cooked.