Pork problems

Yesterday, Nathan Mhyrvold, an ex-Microsoft exec and all-around food nerd posted an excerpt of his new book Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking at The Guardian.

There, Mhyrvold talks about the “misconceptions of pork,” and how most of us cook the hell out of it, way beyond what’s needed to be safe. And for the most part, he’s right. In fact, the USDA just revised their standards for cooked pork, dropping the suggested internal temperature down from a cotton-mouthed 160 degrees to a succulent and juicy 145.

Atop his soapbox, Mhryvold proclaims that naive American consumers and amateur cooks are so afraid of trichinosis that we nearly dehydrate our pork, lest we become stricken with such a dangerous pathogen. But our fears our misguided, he asserts, because an internal temperature of 145 is high enough to kill most microorganisms, and all the while trichinosis is becoming increasingly rare in domestic pigs.

And while that may be true, trichinosis in pork isn’t the problem, according to a survey highlighted by the Washington Post. Instead, consumers should be more cautious of toxoplasmosis, which infects 15-25% of seemingly healthy pigs in the US, and is the third leading cause of death when food illness is to blame.

Toxoplasmosis (which is spread by the toxoplasma microorganism) can be passed from an infected animal to humans when people consume undercooked meat. Roughly one-third of the global population is infected by toxoplasma (US infection rate is around 23% for people over the age of 12).

While most people infected by the parasite are completely asymptomatic, it is particularly dangerous to people with compromised immune systems, including pregnant women, where it can cause a host of issues as the baby comes to term. Taken together, the disease is the #2 most expensive food-borne pathogen, mounting a yearly economic burden of $1.2 billion.

I haven’t read Mhyrvold’s book. And so I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt, assuming this discussion is in there somewhere, but edited out of the online excerpt.

See the full list of the costs of food pathogens here.

Photo via Flickr / Boston Public Library


Brian Mossop is currently the Community Editor at Wired, where he works across the brand, both magazine and website, to build and maintain strong social communities. Brian received a BS in Electrical Engineering from Lafayette College, and a PhD in Biomedical Engineering from Duke University in 2006. His postdoctoral work was in neuroscience at UCSF and Genentech.

Brian has written about science for Wired, Scientific American, Slate, Scientific American MIND, and elsewhere. He primarily cover topics on neuroscience, development, behavior change, and health.

Contact Brian at, on Twitter (@bmossop), or visit his personal website.