Sorry in advance, but this is probably going to gross you out. If you've ever wondered why you only order a steak anywhere from rare (mooing) to well done (you don't deserve steak), you're about to find out.
The short answer is eating undercooked pork could make you seriously sick. But why? It all comes down to one little worm called trichinella.
What is trichinella?
Trichinella is a species of worm that can commonly occur in carnivorous animals like bears or cougars, or omnivorous animals such as domestic pigs and wild boars. While you're probably not noshing on bear when you're out to a nice dinner, pork chops are a lot more common—and this is where things start to get icky.That little worm causes an infection called trichinellosis, something you are at risk of getting if you eat undercooked meat like pork or a number of other weird things (seal? walrus? This according to the CDC). When meat is fully cooked through, the risk of potential infection is very significantly reduced. Now, to be fair, the commercialization of the meat industry has minimized risks trichinella thanks to increased regulation of animal feed. But wild boar and noncommercial pork still pose a greater risk.
Trichinellosis typically presents as garden-variety food poisoning, but more severe cases can result in swollen joints, conjunctivitis and more horrible stuff. Gross. GROSS. If you think you might have trichinellosis, haul ass to your doc and get tested—they'll prescribe antibiotics.
It's okay, don't barf.
On the plus side, rates of this ish are down significantly—only 15 cases were reported between 2008 and 2012 in the United States. That being said, many mild cases of trichinellosis are never reported because they're assumed to be the flu or another gastrointestinal illness.
If you're still nervous, though—and this is just generally good practice—make sure you're cooking meats to the proper temperature. I highly recommend a meat thermometer so you don't have to play the "do the juices run clear?" game until you just can't decide anymore and dinner gets overcooked.
For whole cuts of meat, cook to at least 145°F and let rest for another three minutes. The resting is important, because temperature remains constant during this period and helps destroy pathogens.
For ground meats, heat to at least 160ºF, but don't worry about resting. For wild game, again, heat to 160ºF and let rest for another three minutes.
Now go forth and chow down! Or not.