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Tips from a nervous cook: How to make pathogen-free pet jerky treats

I admit it; I’m not in love with being in the kitchen, mainly because that place makes me nervous. I can’t help thinking about all the places in there where germs are lurking, waiting to contaminate something  – mainly my food.

Being a food safety nut has only magnified my fear of that place, but when I have to handle raw meat, I need two things: surgical gloves and Valium.

Believe me, if you knew what I know you would too.

So, imagine my horror when I found out there is one more thing to worry about in the meat safety department.

Tedious, but necessary, tips

Food safety advocates are such a pain; they have this annoying habit of telling you things you’ll wish to God you had never heard about. But, sometimes that information, as tedious as it is, can sometimes mean the difference between making safe pet treats and making everyone, including the family dog, very sick.

Before embarking on making your own jerky for your fur family you need to know that illness due to Salmonella and E. coli O157:H7 from homemade jerky can be a serious problem.

Dangerous dehydrators

The danger in dehydrating meat and poultry without cooking it to a safe temperature is that the dehydrator will not heat the meat to 160 °F and poultry to 165 °F — temperatures at which bacteria are destroyed.

Scary!

But do not fear my frazzled friend, there is a way to make jerky at home safely:

Method no. 1

The first method suggests cooking the meat at a safe temperature before the dehydrating process, because, they say by the time the dried meat temperature finally begins to rise, the bacteria have become more heat-resistant and are more likely to survive.

Yikes!

If these surviving bacteria are pathogenic, they can cause foodborne illness to those consuming the jerky.

After heating the meat to an internal temperature of 160°F or 165°F, you must maintain a constant dehydrator temperature of 130°F to 140°F during the drying process. The process must be fast enough to dry food before it spoils; and it must remove enough water that microorganisms are unable to grow.

Method no. 2 (better)

The second method suggests dehydrating the meat first at 145°F  to 155°F for at least 4 hours followed by heating in a pre-heated 275°F oven for 10 minutes. Drying meat at a temperature below 145°F will produce a product that looks done before it is heated enough to destroy pathogens, and before it has lost enough moisture to be shelf-stable.

OMG!

Only a few dehydrators currently on the market will maintain the necessary temperature of 145°F to 155°F. The proponents of the second method say that unfortunately method no. 1 (USDA‐recommended method) produces a dried, crumbly product that would be judged inferior by “Wisconsin standards for chewy, flexible jerky.”

High risk jerky

The USDA assures consumers that should they wish to avoid the kitchen all together, commercially made jerky is perfectly safe because the process is monitored in federally inspected plants by inspectors of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service.

However, this assurance can only be made for jerky products made for human consumption. Big difference.

Pet treats, including jerky type pet treats, are not supervised by USDA inspectors; therefore, their safety cannot be assured. And as the FDA and veterinarians across the U.S. have repeatedly warned: There is something wrong with the commercially available pet jerky treats.

My advice?

So, my advice is: Don’t buy them until the FDA can assure consumers there isn’t a problem with them. Otherwise, you may be putting not only your pet at risk for foodborne illness, but also any member of your family that may be exposed to contaminated pet treats.

For detailed explanation and instructions, read the following guides: USDA’s guide to making jerky and the University of Wisconsin’s guide to making jerky.

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Mollie Morrissette

Mollie Morrissette, the author of Poisoned Pets, is an animal food safety expert and consumer advisor. Help support her work by making a donation today.

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