Can Pregnant Women Eat Corned Beef or Salt Beef? Is It Safe?

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Written by Gina Wagg BA, Dip.

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Whether it’s a corned beef hash or tucking into some traditional corned beef and cabbage to celebrate St Patrick’s Day, you might have wondered if corned beef is safe to eat when you’re pregnant. The same goes for its counterpart, often just called ‘salt beef’.

Can Pregnant Women Eat Corned Beef or Salt Beef? Whether corned beef is pregnancy-safe or not depends on the way it is preserved, stored and displayed. Canned corned beef is usually OK for pregnant women, but other types may not be.

In this article, I’ll cover all types of corned beef and discuss whether they’re safe to eat in pregnancy, including which types are safest, and which can be eaten hot or cold.

Can Pregnant Women Eat Canned Corned Beef?

Canned corned beef has been around a long time; it was one of the first foods to be canned in the early 1900s. It’s also called “tinned corned beef”.

Canned corned beef is easily recognizable due to the non-symmetrical can, which usually comes with a metal key to release the meat from the can:

canned corned beef on a brown table

Canned corned beef is usually safe for pregnant women, because of the way the meat is produced. It’s pressure cooked and sterilized at a high temperature, which kills any bacteria present.

Therefore, canned or tinned corned beef can also be eaten cold, straight from the can, e.g. in a corned beef sandwich. It’s already cooked, and it’s sterile.

Canned corned beef is different from salted, whole briskets that are cooked and sliced, which is also “corned beef”. This is covered below.

Whole Corned Beef (Salt Beef) & Pregnancy Safety

Canned corned beef is very different from traditional corned beef, which is usually a whole brisket or similar cut. This is then cured in a salty brine (‘corned’, refers to corns of salt), and then cooked.

“Salt beef” is a more popular term in the USA, but it refers to the same thing – a whole joint of beef (usually brisket) that has been salted/brined and cured.

“Homemade” salt beef or corned beef is this type. When you’re eating out, or didn’t make the corned beef yourself, ask if it’s from a can. If it isn’t, then it’s whole corned beef, from a joint.

Whole corned beef, or salt beef, should be heated before you eat it. It should be treated as if it’s deli meat (see below).

Is Corned Beef a Deli Meat?

Deli meats are potentially unsafe because of the way they are stored and displayed, rather than what meat they’re made from. “Deli meat” is usually cold, cooked meat, often pre-sliced or sliced to order.

For the purposes of pregnancy safety, corned beef should be treated like deli meat.

This means:

  • If you’ve made the corned beef yourself, homemade corned beef is safe to eat when it’s freshly cooked. Then follow the instructions below for reheating it safely.
  • If you’re buying salt beef or corned beef from a packet or a deli (pre-sliced OR whole), then treat it as you would deli meat. This means that in order for it to be safe, you’ll need to heat up the meat until it’s steaming hot. This is a temperature of 165F / 75C.

Deli meat such as corned beef shouldn’t be eaten cold. For more information on eating deli meat in pregnancy, including how to heat it up safely, there’s a whole article dedicated to deli meat here.

In the UK, cold corned beef in a packet from the supermarket chiller is considered safe during pregnancy (source: NHS).

reuben sandwich with corned beef and cheese

What About Corned Beef Sandwiches in Pregnancy? (e.g. Reuben)

If the corned beef is served hot in a sandwich, then it’s safe for you to eat in pregnancy. You might have to ask for the corned beef to be heated more than usual, as it needs to be hot, and not just warm.

For example, Reuben sandwiches are often grilled, using cold slices of corned beef. The grilling process might only warm the meat rather than get it hot, so ask the sandwich seller to heat the corned beef separately first.

30 seconds in the microwave or under a grill for a few minutes should get it to the ‘steaming hot’ temperature that kills potential bacteria like listeria (this is 165F or 75C). There’s a guide here to getting deli meat up to temperature.

This also applies if you’re making a sandwich at home from corned beef you’ve bought from a store or deli, or if you’re eating any sandwich that can be classed as corned beef or ‘hot salt beef’. Get it hot, and it’s safe for you to eat during your pregnancy.

Should Pregnant Women Avoid Corned Beef Due to Nitrates?

Corned beef production involves adding nitrates, usually, sodium nitrate (often used commercially) and potassium nitrate, also known as saltpeter (often used in homemade recipes).

At present, there’s no advice that specifies that pregnant women should specifically avoid nitrates. However, nitrates have been recognized as carcinogenic if consumed in large amounts (source: Harvard). Processed red meats containing nitrates should be eaten in moderation – this includes corned beef.

If the food is labeled “nitrate-free”, it doesn’t make much difference, since this only means that nitrates from vegetable extracts have been used (e.g. celery) instead of commercial ones added during production.

If you’re making salt or corned beef at home, you can, in theory, skip the saltpeter or other nitrate compounds as its main function is to preserve the meat and give it the classic ‘pink’ color.

If you don’t mind eating the corned beef within 2-3 days of making it, and you don’t mind that it’s grey in color, then you can skip adding nitrates if this is your preference.

Here’s a recipe from Martha Stewart that doesn’t use nitrates:

Common Corned Beef Dishes and Pregnancy Safety

There are a couple of dishes that are asked about often, because they contain corned beef:

homemade corned beef hash in a pan
  • Corned Beef Hash is safe to eat when you’re pregnant if it’s been made from canned corned beef, or corned beef sliced or shredded from a joint that has been heated until it’s hot, not just warm.

    Hashes are normally cooked in a frying pan, so make sure the meat is steaming hot before you eat it, or ask for this if you’re dining out. The other ingredients in corned beef hash are usually fine, but you shouldn’t eat it with runny eggs – see this article on egg cookery in pregnancy for more.
  • Corned beef with cabbage is traditionally eaten on St Patrick’s Day and similar occasions, or you might have it just as a tasty winter warming stew. If you use a slow cooker, it may not get hot enough (165F / 75C) so check this before eating the corned beef.

    If you’ve cooked corned beef and cabbage in the slow cooker and it’s below this temperature, or if you’re reheating it from cold, then you’ll need to reheat it to a hot temperature. All cooking methods to make meat safe are covered in the deli meat article. Cabbage is a good, nutritious option in pregnancy, but make sure it’s washed first before you tuck in.

The same guidelines above also apply to salt beef – the two are interchangeable.

If you want to enjoy other meat safely during pregnancy, you might also like: