Undercooked hamburgers and risk communication

James Andrews of Food Safety News writes that undercooked hamburgers continue to be a popular offering at U.S. restaurants. While they may be tasty, a burger cooked outside of specific time/temperature combinations is a risky meal.

In May 2014, Detroit-based beef supplier Wolverine Packing Co. recalled 1.8 million pounds of ground beef after the product was linked to 12 E. coli infections in Michigan, Ohio, Missouri and Massachusetts. Seven people were hospitalized.letubburger

The illnesses in that outbreak were traced back to restaurants where the ground beef was served, although health officials have refused to reveal any of the restaurants involved. They have said they believe undercooked burgers played a role in at least some of those cases, and they issued a number of warnings about the risks of consuming undercooked hamburger meat following the outbreak.

Serving and advertising medium-rare burgers has been a growing trend in the restaurant and “gastropub” industry, said Roy Costa, owner of Environ Health Associates, a food safety consulting firm for restaurants.

One of Costa’s clients is a gourmet burger chain with a handful of locations in California and a few other states. They recommend ordering their burgers medium-rare, which means the center remains pink, and, if there are any potential pathogens in the center of the meat, they would likely remain alive.

Costa would only work with the chain if they found a beef supplier that tested for E. coli O157:H7, which they did. But that’s still no guarantee that the meat won’t come with Salmonella or Campylobacter, he noted.

“It’s not a perfect situation, and there’s still a danger there,” Costa said.

One of my graduate students, Ellen Thomas has been working on a project related directly to this type of product, where secret shoppers have been speaking with servers at burger-serving family style restaurants throughout the U.S. The results of the project will be shared at IAFP in Indianapolis. In reference to the preliminary data that Ellen is looking at, I told James one of the goofier food safety  things I’ve said:

“Risk communication from a server-to-patron standpoint in certain cases is not well done,” he said, adding, “No pun intended.”

Sums it up though.

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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.