The excessive restrictions on cooking pork didn’t come out of nowhere. In decades past, pork was intrinsically less safe than other meats because of muscle infiltration by Trichinella and surface contamination from fecal-borne pathogens like Salmonella and Clostridium perfringens . As a result, people learned to tolerate overcooked pork, and farms raised pigs with increasing amounts of fat—far more fat than is typical in the wild ancestors of pigs such as wild boar. The extra fat helped to keep the meat moist when it was overcooked.
Since then, research has sharpened our understanding of pork-associated pathogens, and producers have vastly reduced the risk of contamination through preventive practices on the farm and in meat-processing facilities. Eventually the FDA relaxed the cooking requirements for pork; they are now no different than those for other meats. The irony is that few people noticed—culinary professionals and cookbook authors included. Government information aimed at consumers from both the USDA and the FDA continued to promote excessive cooking standards for pork. Amazingly, even pork industry groups continued to do the same thing.
After decades of consuming overcooked pork by necessity, the American public has little
appetite for rare pork; it isn’t considered traditional. With a lack of cultural pressure or agitation for change by industry groups, the new standards are largely ignored, and many new publications leave the old cooking recommendations intact.
Clearly, cultural and political factors impinge on decisions about food safety. If you doubt that, note the contrast between the standards applied to pork and those applied to beef. Many people love rare steak or raw beef served as carpaccio or steak tartare, and in the United States alone, millions of people safely eat beef products, whether raw, rare, or well-done. Beef is part of the national culture, and any attempt to outlaw rare or raw steak in the United States would face an immense cultural and political backlash from both the consumers and the producers of beef.
Millions of servings of rare beef steak or completely raw steak tartare or carpaccio are served every day, so if that meat were inherently dangerous, we’d certainly know by now. Scientific investigation has confirmed the practice is reasonably safe—almost invariably, muscle interiors are sterile and pathogen-free. That’s true for any meat, actually, but only beef is singled out by the FDA. The cultural significance of eating raw and rare beef, as much as the science, accounts for the FDA’s leniency in allowing beef steak to be served at any internal temperature.
Cultural and political factors also explain why cheese made from raw milk is considered safe in France yet viewed with great skepticism in the United States. Traditional cheese-making techniques, used correctly and with proper quality controls, eliminate pathogens without the need for milk pasteurization. Millions of people safely consume raw milk cheese in France, and any call to ban such a fundamental part of French culture would meet with enormous resistance there.
The United States, however, lacks a broadly recognized culture of making or eating raw milk cheeses. Not coincidentally, health officials have imposed inconsistent regulations on such cheeses. Raw milk cheese aged less than 60 days cannot be imported into the United States and cannot legally cross U.S. state lines. Yet in 24 of the 50 states, it is perfectly legal to make, sell, and consume raw milk cheeses within the state. In most of Canada raw milk cheese is banned, but in the province of Quebec it is legal.
How can these discrepancies among and even within countries persist? It comes down to politics. In areas without a substantial local population demanding unpasteurized milk cheeses—
a few gourmets, foodies, and chefs don’t count for much politically—no backlash has ensued. So the seemingly conservative rule holds, banning anything that seems remotely suspicious.