Undercooked cheeseburger
There are many restaurants serving undercooked hamburgers – rare or medium rare – per their customers’ request.

Three-and-a-half years ago, Jay Wenther, Ph.D., who was then executive director of the American Association of Meat Processors (AAMP), walked into a meeting of the Conference on Food Protection (CFP), an important food safety organization made up of industry representatives, government regulators, university professors and consumer organizations – in other words, the stakeholders from all sides who recommend ways to improve food safety. Wenther and AAMP’s goal was straightforward – to get CFP to amend the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Food Code by not allowing restaurants to serve undercooked ground beef to consumers – even if a consumer ordered a rare hamburger. 

Bernard Shire
Bernard Shire

The change would have required restaurants to cook ground beef to at least 160? F to ensure it was properly cooked to eliminate the chance of E. coli O157:H7 contamination. Wenther asked CFP how the pathogen could be considered dangerous by the US Dept. of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, and yet the FDA didn’t control the way ground beef is prepared for customers in restaurants.

At the time, 19 years had passed since E. coli had killed consumers at Jack in the Box restaurants. The incidents triggered the massive changes in meat inspection resulting in the mandatory use of Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) programs in meat and poultry processing, the biggest change in meat processing since the passage of the Federal Meat Inspection Act in 1906. But CFP’s answer at the time was that a mandated cooking standard for ground beef would deter the meat industry from controlling E. coli O157:H7 during the meat processing stage. In other words, meat processors are responsible for everything, while restaurants and consumers have been granted absolution. Another CFP member said mandating cooking would be “another infringement” into consumers’ lives. CFP decided to take no action, saying it was “impractical for implementation.”

It’s now been 22 years since the incidents at Jack in the Box, and inexplicably, customers are still allowed to order a hamburger cooked “rare,” with the exception of fast-food restaurants, where consumers don’t have a choice.

Just a few months ago, there was an E. coli outbreak in New England, where 11 people in three states got sick from eating ground beef. Inside a cooler of a popular restaurant in Vermont, state officials found Shiga toxin-producing bacteria in an unopened package of beef. But there has been no recall of the product. That’s because there’s been a conflict about the cause of the illness outbreak. On one hand, the victims have admitted they ate hamburgers that were undercooked, either rare or medium rare in the restaurant. The restaurant has since eliminated cooking rare hamburgers for consumers. The restaurant claims the meat was contaminated at a USDA-inspected slaughtering facility and not at the farm where the cattle were raised. But USDA hasn’t recalled any beef. And the state’s health officials believe undercooked contaminated beef caused the illness outbreak.

So at this point, the cause of the outbreak remains vague and uncertain. So the state of Vermont and USDA are still looking. But one thing went unmentioned by both USDA and the state – the danger of eating undercooked ground beef.

Despite this, there are still many restaurants across the US serving undercooked hamburgers – rare or medium rare – per their customers’ request. Some restaurant menus include disclaimers about the risks associated with eating undercooked or raw meat, poultry or seafood.

But recently, there’s been talk of trying to find methods to minimize the chances of pathogenic strains of E. coli in ground beef, without the product being cooked to a well-done level. With the difficulty involved in ensuring there is no E. coli or that’s it been eliminated, it seems just plain foolhardy to try and do this. Why take such a risk? With the risk of E. coli so well known, maybe it’s time for USDA and FDA to work together to mandate cooking of ground beef in restaurants to 155? F for at least 16 seconds. The two agencies also need to increase the public education so home cooks will take the same steps to be sure their meat products will be as safe as possible.