Top 10 reasons telling people to ‘just cook it’ sucks as a food safety strategy

About 18 months after the 1993 Jack-in-the-Box E. coli O157:H7 outbreak, I, the erstwhile graduate student, gave a talk to a bunch of food safety types from government and industry. I showed a clip from ABC’s 20/20 television program about a family fighting for regulatory change, and many in the audience laughed at the family when their kitchen was shown. Audience members commented that the consumers were sloppy in their cooking and of course they got sick, and if only they would cook hamburger properly E. coli O157:H7 wouldn’t happen.

I thought the response of the audience was sort of appalling.

In mid-1994, Michael Taylor was appointed chief of USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service.  On Sept. 29, 1994, USDA said it would now regard E. coli O157:H7 in raw ground beef as an “adulterant,” a substance that should not be present in the product. By mid-October, 1994, Taylor announced plans to launch a nationwide sampling of ground beef to assess how much E. coli O157:H7 was in the marketplace. The 5,000 samples would be taken during the year from supermarkets and meat processing plants “to set an example and stimulate companies to put in preventive measures.” Positive samples would prompt product recalls of the entire affected lot, effectively removing it from any possibility of sale.

That’s the long-winded version for what a USDA official said in a 1994 television interview: we’ll stop blaming consumers  when they get sick from the food and water they consume.

But the just-cook-it crowd persisted. And still does today.

A couple of weeks ago, while announcing a ground beef recall in Colorado, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety Inspection Service stated in a release,

FSIS would like to remind consumers of the importance of following food safety guidelines when handling and preparing raw meat. Ground beef should be cooked to a safe minimum internal temperature of 160° Fahrenheit.

I would like to remind FSIS that it ain’t so easy to handle contaminated ground beef and not spread it around a home or food service kitchen.

Jim Marsden, a former vp at the American Meat Institute and now a professor at Kansas State University, wrote in his blog last week, the top-10 reasons “just cook it” does not, and will not, work.

1. E. coli O157:H7 is a unique pathogen. The levels of this organism necessary to cause infection are very low.

2. The severity of the disease E. coli O157:H7 can cause, especially in children is devastating.

3. In many cases, parents order hamburgers for their children and rely on restaurants to cook them properly.  In restaurants, parents really have no control over whether the hamburgers they order are sufficiently cooked to eliminate possible contamination from E. coli O157:H7.

4. If consumers unknowingly bring this pathogen into their kitchens, it is almost impossible to avoid cross contamination. Even the smallest amount of contamination on a food that is not cooked can cause illness. Many of the reported cases of E. coli O157:H7 have involved ground beef that was clearly cooked at times and temperatures sufficient to inactivate E. coli O157:H7.  Some other vector, i.e. cross contamination was probably involved.

5. Even if consumers attempt to use thermometers to measure cooking temperature, it is difficult to properly measure the internal temperature of hamburger patties. They would have to use an accurate thermometer and place the probe exactly into the center of the patty. In addition, the inactivation of E. coli O157:H7 is dependent on cooking time and temperature. For example, if they cook to 155 degrees F, they should hold that temperature for 16 seconds. It is not realistic to expect that consumers, many of which are children will scientifically measure the internal temperature of hamburgers.

6. The way ground beef is packaged, it is virtually impossible to remove it from packages or chubs and make patties without spreading contamination if it is present.

7. Sometimes ground beef appears to be cooked when it really isn’t. There is a phenomenon called “premature browning” that can make ground beef appear to be fully cooked when in fact it is undercooked.

8. E. coli O157:H7 may be present in beef products other than ground beef. For example, in non-intact beef products, including tenderized steaks that are not always cooked to temperatures required for inactivation.

9. There have been many cases and outbreaks of E. coli O157:H7 associated with foods that are not cooked (i.e. fresh cut produce).

10. As Senator Patrick Leahy said after the 1993 Jack-in-the-Box outbreak – “The death penalty is too strong a punishment for undercooking a hamburger”.  He was right –consumers will make mistakes. There needs to be a margin of safety so that undercooking does not result in disease or death.

14 sick with Salmonella in Colorado; beef recalled

King Soopers, Inc., a Denver, Colo., establishment, is recalling approximately 466,236 pounds of ground beef products that may be linked to an outbreak of salmonellosis, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) announced today.

As a result of an ongoing investigation into an outbreak of Salmonella Typhimurium DT104 associated with ground beef products, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) notified FSIS of the problem. Epidemiological investigations and a case control study conducted by CDPHE and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) determined that there is an association between the fresh ground beef products and 14 illnesses reported in Colorado. The illnesses were linked through the epidemiological investigation by their less common pulsed-field gel electrophoresis (PFGE) pattern found in PulseNet, a national network of public health and food regulatory agency laboratories coordinated by the CDC.

FSIS would like to remind consumers of the importance of following food safety guidelines when handling and preparing raw meat. Ground beef should be cooked to a safe minimum internal temperature of 160° Fahrenheit.

I would like to remind FSIS that it ain’t so easy to handle contaminated ground beef and not spread it around a home or food service kitchen.

How to properly cook hamburgers

The best way to make a hamburger is debatable. In my opinion adding Swiss cheese, pickles, onions, and mustard to a burger nearly perfects it. The one other ingredient? Temperature.
Cooking burgers to 160°F is the only sure way to tell that it is fully cooked. Cooking hamburgers to 160°F kills unwanted microorganisms such as E. coli O157:H7, a deadly ingredient. The U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention estimates 61 deaths a year from E. coli, and thousands more ill. Ground beef was recalled 19 different times in 2007 for E. coli contamination.
E. coli O157:H7 loves hiding in the intestines of animals, such as cows. During slaughter, if workers do not follow safe practices it can get onto the cuts of meat. Steaks can be cooked to varying degrees of doneness because any potential for microorganisms exists only on the surface. However, with ground beef the muscle is mixed up and the organisms are spread throughout the meat.
When cooking, don’t rely on the burger’s appearance to tell if it is done. Many people think a burger that is no longer pink is a done burger. This is not the case as pointed out in many studies (here, here, and here). Sometimes burgers look done well before they hit 160°F.
To measure the temperature of a burger, go out and buy a tip sensitive digital thermometer. Remove the burger from the grill or stove and insert the thermometer into the side of the meat all the way to the center. Wait until the thermometer reads 160°F before serving. Add the toppings of your choice, and enjoy!

Podcast 1
Podcast 2

Hunt, M.C., O. Sørheim, E. Slinde. Color and Heat Denaturation of Myoglobin Forms in Ground Beef. Journal of Food Science Volume 64 Issue 5 Page 847-851, September 1999.

Ryan, Suzanne M., Mark Seyfert, Melvin C. Hunt, Richard A. Mancini. Influence of Cooking Rate, Endpoint Temperature, Post-cook Hold Time, and Myoglobin Redox State on Internal Color Development of Cooked Ground Beef Patties. Journal of Food Science. Volume 71 Issue 3 Page C216-C221, April 2006

Seyfert, M., R.A. Mancini, M.C. Hunt. Internal Premature Browning in Cooked Ground Beef Patties from High-Oxygen Modified-Atmosphere Packaging. Journal of Food Science. Volume 69 Issue 9 Page C721-C725, December 2004

Today’s ifsn infosheet: ground beef products linked to outbreak

Today’s infosheet focuses on an outbreak of E. coli O157 linked to ground beef and ground beef products served at restaurants in the US.   We use the outbreak and recall to highlight the importance of handling ground beef and patties properly in kitchens, including proper cooking, keeping foods separate, using clean equipment and handwashing.  You can download the infosheet here.

Bill Marler, guest barfblogger: Suing the church over E. coli O157?

When Nebraska Beef first raised the issue that it intended to sue the church for “mishandling” its E. coli O157:H7 contaminated meat I laughed.  I then calmly tried to respond that the Meat Industry that makes a profit off of selling “USDA Inspected Meat” couldn’t blame the consumer if the product actually contains a pathogen that can severely sicken or kill a bunch of nice older ladies at a church supper.  What other product in the United States would a manufacturer expect consumers to fix themselves before they used it?
My calmness faded. Think about the little labels on meat that you buy in the store – the ones that tell you to cook the meat to 160 degrees – of course they also say USDA inspected too. However, the labels do not say:

“The USDA inspection means nothing.  This product may contain pathogenic bacteria that can severely sicken or kill you and/or your child.  Handle this product with extreme care.”

I wonder why the Meat Industry does not want a label like that on your pound of hamburger? It knows that the label is truthful. Do you think it might be concerned that Moms and Dads would stop buying it? The day the industry puts a similar label on hamburger is the day that I will go work for them.
The reality is that the Meat Industry cannot assure the public that the meat we buy is not contaminated. So, instead of finding a way to get cattle feces out of our meat, they blame grandparents (and presumably all the teenagers that work at all the burger joints in America) when children get sick.
Consumers can always do better. However, study after study shows that, despite the CDC estimated 76 million people getting sick every year from food borne illnesses, the American public still has misconceptions and overconfidence in our Nation’s food supply.
According to a study by the Partnership for Food Safety Education, fewer than half of the respondents knew that fresh vegetables and fruits could contain harmful bacteria, and only 25% thought that eggs and dairy products could be contaminated. Most consumers believe that food safety hazards can be seen or smelled. Only 25% of consumers surveyed knew that cooking temperatures were critical to food safety, and even fewer knew that foods should be refrigerated promptly after cooking. Consumers do not expect that things that you cannot see in your food can kill you.

Consumers are being blamed, but most lack the knowledge or tools to properly protect themselves and their children. The FDA has stated, “unlike other pathogens, E. coli O157:H7 has no margin for error. It takes only a microscopic amount to cause serious illness or even death.” Over the last few years our Government and the Meat Industry have repeatedly told the consumer to cook hamburger until there is no pink. Yet, recent university and USDA studies show meat can turn brown before it is actually “done.” Now the consumer is urged to use a thermometer to test the internal temperature of the meat. However, how do you use one, and who really has one?

Many consumers wrongly believe the Government is protecting the food supply. How many times have we heard our Government officials spout “The US food supply is the safest in the world.”

Where is the multi-million dollar ad campaign to convince us of the dangers of hamburger, like we do for tobacco? The USDA’s FightBAC and Thermy education programs are limited, and there are no studies to suggest that they are effective. Most consumers learn about food safety from TV and family members – If your TV viewing habits and family are like mine, these are highly suspect sources of good information.

The bottom line is that you cannot leave the last bacteria “Kill Step” to a grandparent or to a kid in a fast food joint. The industry that makes billions off of selling meat must step up and clean up their mess. They can, and someday will, if I have anything to say about it. That day will come much faster if they start working on it now, and stop blaming the victims.

William D. Marler of Marler Clark LLP PS, ( is a trial lawyer who represents victims of food-borne illnesses, and the father of three daughters.  Bill comments on food safety at and can be reached at 1-206-719-4705.

How clean are indoor playgrounds?

The Northwest Herald in Illinois notes that indoor playgrounds are not regulated or inspected by the county or state health departments.

Debra Quackenbush, McHenry County Department of Health spokeswoman, was cited as saying that the department did not regulate indoor playgrounds.

State Rep. Jack Franks, D-Woodstock, was cited as saying the lack of regulations for play equipment could explain why his sons contracted pink eye several times after visiting indoor playgrounds when they were younger, and that self-regulation for restaurant operators, without the threat of punishment, did not work.

Franks was further cited as saying that the county health department should be responsible for making sure that indoor playgrounds were sanitary, adding, "The health department inspects the cleanliness of the restaurant. How much harder would it be to also make sure that the play area is clean?"

Managers of local Burger King and McDonald’s restaurants were cited as telling the Northwest Herald that an outside company cleaned the inside of their play tubes once a month, adding that employees sanitized the play area throughout the day and cleaned it at the end of the workday.