PUBLISHED: 1:32 PM on Wednesday, December 7, 2005
Food thermometers are key to food safety

With the holidays come an increase in cooking and baking. Hungry family members hang around the kitchen enjoying the aroma of favorite foods asking, "Is it done yet?"

The answer to this hungry question is the basis of a national campaign to encourage the use of food thermometers when preparing meat, poultry, fish, and egg dishes, in order to prevent foodborne illness.

The campaign, which is being led by the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service, is themed, "Is It Done Yet? You Can't Tell By Looking. Use a Food Thermometer To Be Sure!"

Everyone is at risk for foodborne illness. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that every year about 76 million people in the United States become ill from harmful bacteria in food; of these, about 5,000 die. Some people may be at high risk for developing food borne illness. These include pregnant women and their unborn babies and newborns, young children, older adults, people with weakened immune systems and individuals with certain chronic illnesses. These people should pay extra attention to handle food safely.

One effective way to prevent illness is to use a food thermometer to check the internal temperature of meat, poultry, fish and egg dishes. Using a food thermometer not only keeps your family safe from harmful food bacteria, but it also helps you to avoid overcooking, giving you a safe and flavorful meal.

Consumer behavior research shows that cooking by color is just one of the ways consumers typically judge whether or not food is "done." Consumers said they also "eyeball" the food, go by recommended cooking times, and trust their experience and judgment.

The only problem is, those methods may be misleading.

Many people assume that if a hamburger is brown in the middle, it is done. However, looking at the color and texture of food is not enough - you have to use a food thermometer to be sure.

Studies have shown that using a food thermometer is the only way to tell if harmful bacteria have been destroyed.

According to USDA research, one out of every four hamburgers turns brown before it reaches a safe internal temperature of 1601/4F. Yet only 6 percent of home cooks use a food thermometer for hamburgers and only 10 percent use a food thermometer for chicken breast.

Food thermometers can be purchased in many grocery, hardware or kitchen supply stores at an average cost of $5. Make sure the thermometer you buy is designed for meat and poultry as there are many types of food thermometers, for example, candy thermometers. Read the package label carefully to make sure that you are buying the type designed for use with meats.

Using a food thermometer is not complicated - and it's worth the effort. Here are some tips for using one.

• Use an instant-read food thermometer to check the internal temperature toward the end of the cooking time, but before the food is expected to be "done."

• Insert the food thermometer into the thickest part of the food, making sure it doesn't touch bone, fat, or gristle, which would result in an inaccurate reading.

• Cook food until the thermometer shows an internal temperature of 1451/4F for steaks, roasts and fish; 1601/4F for hamburger, pork and egg dishes; 1701/4F for chicken breasts; and 1801/4F for whole poultry, including turkey.

• When reheating foods, reheat thoroughly to a temperature of 1651/4F.

• Clean the food thermometer with hot, soapy water before and after each use.

Most dial or digital food thermometers are accurate to within plus or minus 1 to 21/4F.

The accuracy of the meat thermometer can be verified and the thermometer "calibrated" if necessary.

Some thermometers have "test" marks on them at 2121/4F, the boiling point of water at sea level.

To test the thermometer, insert at least two inches of the stem into boiling water.

It should read 2121/4F.

Some thermometers have a recalibration or adjustment nut under the dial. If necessary, turn the nut to adjust.

For more information on using food thermometers visit the FSIS Web site,, or the Partnership for Food Safety Education Web site,

For food safety information in English and Spanish call the USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline at 1-888-674-6854.

Dr. Koukel is the Juneau District Agent for the Home Economics Programs of the UAF Cooperative Extension Service.