National Post says it’s not all that risky to eat undercooked burgers; make mine 160F

I like burgers. When I go out to eat there are a few places I like to go because I know they have the tools to handle risk reduction.

At one of the places I frequent, I ordered a burger and the server asked me how I wanted it cooked and I replied “well done”, the quick and easy response, and a bit of a cop-out on my part. But I’ve read too many stories about illnesses and deaths linked to ground beef to take the extra chance.

The server prodded me a bit, saying that they use really high quality meat and sort of dared me, or at least nudged me, to reconsider something like medium well. Taking this as an opening, I asked her if the kitchen had a thermometer and if they could cook my burger to 160F. I’ve asked this question before at other restaurants (sometimes to the dismay of my dining partners) and have been given a “yeah right” and chuckle – even though the 155F for 15 seconds or 160F guideline is in the FDA food code (my first encounter with this was while playing golf with Doug at a food safety conference).

Our server looked at me a bit weird, said she figured they had a thermometer be cause they have “pretty good kitchen staff” and would ask.  She came back five minutes later and said that the line cook had a thermometer, they use it all the time, and it would be no problem to get a 160F burger.

While the server didn’t really steer me in the right direction, the kitchen got it right. And I keep going back and ordering burgers cooked to 160F.

In Saturday’s National Post Tristan Hopper writes about the taboo nature of undercooked burgers. The terms medium or medium rare are pretty subjective – and color doesn’t mean a whole lot when it comes to safety.

Canadians will pair their martinis with a plate of raw oysters, load up their plates with cheap sushi and tuck into a steak served Chicago rare – but the pink, medium-rare hamburger remains strictly taboo. Once a staple of Canadian cuisine, for about 40 years a hamburger served anything less than well done has remained a delicacy enjoyed only in a handful of brave establishments and on trips south of the border. It is targeted by health inspectors, feared by restaurant owners and scorned by the public, but the long-misunderstood pink burger may not be nearly as dangerous as we all thought.

“I’ve served probably 100,000 burgers and nothing’s happened,” said Greg, a Canadian restaurant owner who isn’t in fact named Greg but wished to stay anonymous, arguing that media attention could attract unwanted scrutiny from the health department. Greg sources his own meat and grinds it in-house, but he still treads a narrow legal line. “A lot of guys do it, but we do it under the radar. If we put our names out there … they’re going to stop it.”
The official “safe” temperature for hamburger meat, as enshrined in municipal codes and provincial acts across Canada, is 71 degrees Celsius, eight degrees higher than the generally accepted threshold for medium rare. “At 71 degrees … you’re basically turning your meat into shoe leather; protein with no moisture left in it,” said Gilbert Noussitou, chair of culinary arts at Victoria, B.C.’s Camosun College. The French-born chef compared it to the difference between a fresh, juicy apricot or a dehydrated apricot slice pulled from the bottom of a bag of trail mix.

According to chefs, the fault lies with a product completely removed from the traditional, fresh-ground beef patty they learned to make in culinary school: The frozen, heavily spiced, pre-packaged hamburger “hockey puck.” Hardly the product of a single ground-up steak, these patties are packed with a wide array of beef leftovers ranging from gristle to sinew to intestines, the incubators for E. coli. A single patty can contain fragments of hundreds of cows, raised on feedlots thousands of kilometres apart. “It has increased the risk of contamination greatly over the years,” said Mr. Noussitou. Even the most die-hard fan of medium-rare burgers avoids eating frozen patties at anything less than well-done. “I would never want to eat a frozen hamburger patty medium rare because I just don’t know the providence of the meat,” said Mr. Belcham.

Unless these folks are searing the outside of the steak (to inactivate the pathogens that might be on the outside) before grinding it up they aren’t doing a whole by grinding up a steak vs. avoiding a commercially processed burger. While that hand-ground steak burger might come from one cow, the primal cut could be contaminated at the packer, butcher or kitchen. I prefer to control the risks with heat. Make mine cooked to 160F.

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About Ben Chapman

Dr. Ben Chapman is a professor and food safety extension specialist at North Carolina State University. As a teenager, a Saturday afternoon viewing of the classic cable movie, Outbreak, sparked his interest in pathogens and public health. With the goal of less foodborne illness, his group designs, implements, and evaluates food safety strategies, messages, and media from farm-to-fork. Through reality-based research, Chapman investigates behaviors and creates interventions aimed at amateur and professional food handlers, managers, and organizational decision-makers; the gate keepers of safe food. Ben co-hosts a biweekly podcast called Food Safety Talk and tries to further engage folks online through Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and, maybe not surprisingly, Pinterest. Follow on Twitter @benjaminchapman.