Meat may dominate the grill, but the market for plant-based meat alternatives is growing. That growth is due, in part, to a belief that plant-based products are less susceptible to pathogens like E. coli and Salmonella.
“Many consumers believe that plant-based foods are minimally processed, more healthful, and nutritionally superior to otherwise similar animal-based counterparts,” said John Luchansky, lead scientist at the Agricultural Research Service’s (ARS) Food Safety and Intervention Technologies Research unit in Wyndmoor, PA.
Luchansky said that while there have been improvements in the quality of plant-based meat, there are little to no data on the safety of such foods as it relates to microbial pathogens.
Consumers generally, and correctly, consider meat burgers to be raw and to require cooking prior to consumption. On the other hand, many consumers view plant-based burgers as not raw because they contain plant material and some plants can be eaten raw.
“In reality, plants can sometimes harbor high levels of foodborne pathogens and, as such, plant-based burgers should be considered and handled just like, for example, raw ground beef,” said Luchansky’s research partner, Anna Porto-Fett, a microbiologist.
“If you follow the ‘Four C’s of Food Safety,’ which are Cook (160º F), Clean, don’t Cross contaminate, and Chill, you can appreciably lower—but not eliminate—your risk of foodborne illness,” Porto-Fett said.
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As a vegetarian and a food safety professional, I am glad to see this topic be raised.
I have intuitively treated plant-based meats just like their flesh counterparts as far as cooking, cleaning, chilling, and avoiding contamination - but not all consumers have a food science or microbiology background.
As plant-based meats continue to grow in our national diet, I hope to see more research and information being shared with consumers on this topic.