Have you ever walked into a restaurant, ordered a hamburger and was asked, “How would you like it done?”

My answer always is, “well-done,” or “medium well-done.”

Someone else in the food industry has also been thinking about the willingness of restaurants to cook ground beef as customers like, despite the tie to E. coli O157:H7, other types of E. coli and Salmonella. A few months ago, Dr. Jay Wenther, executive director of the American Association of Meat Processors, attended a meeting of the Conference on Food Protection (CFP). This organization consists of industry representatives, government regulators, university professors and consumer organizations. It makes recommendations about ways to improve food safety. While CFP doesn’t make food-safety laws, it wields significant influence about laws and regulations, including the Food and Drug Administration’s Food Code, which sets regs for foodservice and the retail food industry.

Pressing for food safety

Wenther and AAMP attended the meeting with the idea of getting CFP to require restaurants and foodservice to safely prepare ground beef. He asked CFP to amend the FDA Food Code by not allowing foodservice and restaurants to serve undercooked ground beef, blade-tenderized or moisture-enhanced steaks to consumers.

The change would require restaurants to cook these items to at least 160° F to ensure it’s been properly cooked to eliminate the chances of E. coli O157:H7 poisoning. Wenther asks if E. coli O157:H7 has been considered a dangerous pathogen by the US Dept. of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, why doesn’t FDA control the way ground-beef products are cooked at the restaurant level?

During a short discussion about the issue, one CFP member said a mandated cooking standard would deter the meat industry from controlling E. coli O157:H7 at the meat-processing level.

“For years, any question about the safety of ground beef and E. coli goes back to the meat processors, especially the small meat processors, but also the large ones. The feeling is meat processors are responsible for everything, and people further down the line, including foodservice and restaurants, are not,” he said.

Another CFP member said mandating cooking would be “another infringement” into consumers’ lives, and taking away the right of consumers to make their own decisions when ordering beef to eat.

The CFP decided almost unanimously to take no action on AAMP’s proposal, saying it was “impractical for implementation.” Wenther was very disappointed by the decision.

“In AAMP’s opinion, the CFP committee failed to fulfill its objective when presented with a logical proposal to both promote food safety and protect the consumer,” he said. “Also, we thought this would be a good way to change the mindset of the consumer, making them aware of the dangers of eating undercooked ground beef. We also thought if we could change the mindset of consumers, if they couldn’t order undercooked ground beef in restaurants, they would take this knowledge home with them, maybe start using a meat thermometer, and cook ground beef products at home to at least 160° F.”

There’s a reason restaurants can get away with undercooking ground beef for their customers. Restaurants are allowed to serve undercooked ground-beef patties because they put “consumer advisory” statements on their menus. The statements inform customers that certain foods pose a health risk if they are undercooked, because the foods are not processed to eliminate pathogens. Food establishments like restaurants must post this consumer advisory on their menu if they serve raw or undercooked foods of animal origin, or unpasteurized fruit or vegetable juices.

“Restaurants have the warning label to hide behind,” Wenther says. “One-hundred percent of the blame winds up on the meat processor.

“I was optimistic CFP would go for this,” Wenther adds. “We’ve been under HACCP for more than 10 years. Especially with the new FSIS policy on the six E. coli adulterants, we thought there was an increasing concern about the safety of food, especially further down the line beyond the food processors. After all, HACCP is being extended into those areas,” he says.

There’s an irony in this issue. On children’s menus in restaurants, these kinds of products must be fully cooked – there is no choice. But there is a choice on some adult menus. What’s the difference? Is the health of children more important than that of adults? Adults are no more immune from the effects of E. coli than children are.

Bernard Shire is M&P’s Washington correspondent based in Lancaster, Pa. Shire also works as a food safety consultant and writer for Shire & Associates LLC.