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To settle the matter, I put in a call to the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta. After all, when I was a wee lad, I'd had it drilled into my head by my educators that one had to be careful to prepare well all porcine products for fear of the Trichinella parasite, a particularly nasty little roundworm that could hatch its cysts in your intestines, gnaw through your gut and take up residence in your internal organs and muscle tissue. Once that far gone, there's no cure and the result could be, well, death. Visions of worm-riddled carcasses put the fear of Yahweh into my agnostic ass, and I've always been careful to eat the flesh of oinkers only when cooked through and through.
The CDC's fact sheet on trichinosis initially seemed to confirm my childhood fears, stating bluntly, "If you eat raw or undercooked meats, particularly pork, bear, wild feline, fox, wolf, horse, seal or walrus, you are at risk for trichinosis." The CDC's online guidelines suggest that readers "cook meat products until the juices run clear or to an internal temperature of 170 degrees Fahrenheit." When I spoke directly to CDC spokeswoman Christine Pearson, she confirmed that trichinosis was far less common than it once was.
"During the years 1997 through 2001, there were 72 cases of trichinosis reported to the CDC," said Pearson. "Thirty-one of those were associated with eating wild game, nine with eating non-commercial pork. However, 12 of the 72 were associated with commercial pork. Four of those 12 cases involved pork from foreign sources."
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Considering the sheer volume of pork consumed in the United States (about 65 pounds per capita annually), this seems a low risk, but one not entirely eliminated from the food supply. The USDA advises that pork be cooked to an internal temperature of 160 degrees Fahrenheit, a slightly less conservative recommendation than the CDC's. Still, most of us don't run around with meat thermometers in our pockets, so what do we do if we're in a restaurant and the server asks how we want our pork done? Obviously, we can't eat Miss Piggy rare (though one wonders if Kermit ever did), so what are our options?
"You should ask that the meat be cooked medium or higher, to 160 degrees internally," explained USDA flack Matt Baun in the agency's D.C. offices. "It can look pink at 160 degrees, but you have to make sure the cooks know what they're doing."
To each his own, of course, but given the fact that I eat out most nights of the week, and that cooking pork well enough kills off such pathogens as E. coli, salmonella and listeria, in addition to any Trichinella cysts present, I'll stick to well-done, if asked. For those who want pork sushi, I'll pass, but by all means, pig out if you care to risk nematodes squirming in your colon.