Editor’s note: This is the second of a two-part series. Part 1 of the series, which appeared in the January issue of MEAT+POULTRY, reported on concerns food-safety experts have about a possible increase of E. coli outbreaks brought on by an influx of undercooked burgers.

Restaurants offering undercooked burgers on their menus may be encouraging consumers to cook them that way at home.
Restaurants offering undercooked burgers on their menus may be encouraging consumers to cook them that way at home.

At B Spot, a small chain of burger joints operated by celebrity chef Michael Symon, customers can order hamburgers so rare that they are described on the menu as being “reddish” and “cold” in the center. Joe Maas, vice president of operations for Harrison, Ohio-based JTM Food Group, says B Spot and other restaurants offering undercooked hamburgers are not only risking an outbreak of E. coli O157:H7, but they are sending a dangerous message.

“The big rub I have against restaurants offering hamburgers to be cooked anyway other than well done is that they are telling consumers that it’s OK to eat undercooked hamburgers,” says Maas, whose family business manufactures a variety of precooked meat products. “So consumers go home with that thought in their minds.”

David Theno, Ph.D., CEO of Gray Dog Partners, a food safety consultancy in Del Mar, Calif., says restaurants that serve undercooked hamburgers could “put a pattern in motion” for consumers to prepare them that way at home, putting them at risk for E. coli poisoning.

Theno is closer to the issue of ground beef and E. coli than most. He is the former senior vice president and chief food safety officer of Jack in the Box, where he was hired to rebuild the fast-food chain’s quality-assurance program following a 1993 E. coli O157:H7 outbreak from undercooked burgers that sickened about 700 people and killed four children. Theno introduced the meat-processing industry to Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) plans. But it has been 23 years since the Jack in the Box outbreak, which made national headlines and triggered massive changes in meat inspection, and Theno is concerned that many people have forgotten about it.

“I think a lot of people think [the E. coli problem] is fixed or is no longer a big issue, and they don’t worry about it,” he says.

But count Maas among those who haven’t forgotten about Jack in the Box.

“To me, from that day forward [when the Jack in the Box E. coli outbreak occurred], hamburgers cooked other than well-done became unacceptable,” he says.

The consumer dilemma

Consumers reveal the food safety issue most important to them and their family.
Consumer view of most important food safety issue affecting their families.

More Americans may have an affinity for rare and undercooked ground beef than realized. Hannah Gould, Ph.D., an epidemiologist who previously worked in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Division of Foodborne, Waterborne and Environmental Diseases, says a 2007 study revealed that of the 75 percent of Americans who consumed ground beef patties inside and outside of the home, 18 percent of them reported consuming pink ground beef patties.

“I think it’s clear that many Americans do have a preference for rare ground beef,” Gould says.

Roy Costa, a food consultant based in DeLand, Fla., says he does not know if more consumers are cooking rare hamburgers at home, but he’s certain of one thing: The consumer is in poor control of such things.

“You don’t want to introduce any more risk at that level than you possibly can,” Costa says. “From a public health standpoint, you have to get consumers the absolute safest product you can because you know they are going to abuse it.”

Maas says if he were to order a medium-rare hamburger in a restaurant, he should be told by the waiter that a medium-rare hamburger is not safe to eat and that it will only be served to him if it is fully cooked. His point is that consumer education about the dangers of eating undercooked burgers is vital at the foodservice level so consumers know not to eat rare burgers at home.

But restaurants aren’t required legally to not offer undercooked burgers. The Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) Food Code only recommends that licensed foodservice establishments cook ground beef to 155? F to kill foodborne pathogens such as E. coli.

About four years ago, Jay Wenther, then the executive director of the American Association of Meat Processors, addressed the Conference on Food Protection (CFP), a food safety organization consisting of industry representatives, government regulators, university professors and consumer organizations, to try to get the CFP to amend the Food Code by not allowing restaurants to serve undercooked ground beef to consumers, even if a consumer ordered a rare hamburger. The change would have required restaurants to cook ground beef to at least 160? F to eliminate the chance of E. coli. But the CFP declined, citing a mandated cooking standard for ground beef would deter the meat industry from controlling E. coli at the processing plant. One CFP member said mandating cooking would also be “another infringement” on consumers.

David Crownover, product manager for the National Restaurant Association’s (NRA) ServSafe team, says the organization advises its members to follow the Food Code, but does not recommend to restaurants on its own that they should cook ground beef to 155? F.

meat thermometer
“We, as an industry, need to tell the American people that there could be pathogens in your hamburgers, and you need to cook them the same as you do chicken,” says Joe Maas, vice president of operations for JTM Food Group.

“Ultimately, the decision is up to the consumer to make,” Crownover says.

Changing the Food Code to require restaurants to cook hamburgers to 155? F isn’t so simple, Crownover states.

“You start running down a slippery slope” because cooking temperatures would also have to be taken into consideration for other foods, such as steak tartare, rare fish and raw oysters, he says.

Another way to address the issue is for restaurants to adopt their own policies to not serve undercooked hamburgers, which the large fast-food chains have done, Costa says.

“That’s what the McDonald’s of the world do. You get it their way and that’s it,” he adds.

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) warns “that consumers should not eat raw or undercooked ground beef.” The CDC also states that a food thermometer should be used to measure the internal temperature of hamburgers – the only way to be sure ground beef is cooked to a high enough temperature to kill harmful bacteria. The CDC says that color is not a reliable indicator that ground beef or ground beef patties have been cooked to a temperature high enough to kill harmful bacteria such as E. coli. But getting the word out to the public about the CDC’s stance on undercooked ground beef hasn’t been easy.

“The best tool is to educate people, but unfortunately we don’t have a good means of communication with the public about these issues,” Costa says.

The food industry could benefit with a mascot-type figure who advises on food safety, such as the dangers of eating undercooked hamburgers, Costa says. “But that’s just not high on any agency’s budget. We don’t have a unified voice on this,” he adds.

Maas says additional consumer education is needed, and he has no problem putting the onus on consumers to cook ground beef safely.

“You hear that the American people don’t want to hear ‘just cook it.’ Well, my kid doesn’t want to hear me say ‘go to bed’ at night,” Maas adds.

Maas points to the chicken industry and says most consumers realize they must cook chicken thoroughly to eliminate the threat of Salmonella. He says chicken processors have done an exceptional job of educating the public that eating raw chicken is unsafe.

“We, as an industry, need to tell the American people that there could be pathogens in your hamburgers, and you need to cook them the same as you do chicken,” Maas says.

Who’s to say?

David Theno
Dave Theno, founder of Gray Dog Partners, says a lot of people think the E. coli problem is fixed or is no longer a big issue.

With HACCP regulations and other food safety measures in place among ground-beef processors, some restaurants may believe that the ground beef they are purchasing from suppliers is free of E. coli. But unless suppliers are irradiating the beef they sell to restaurants, they can’t claim that E. coli is not a threat, Theno states. Only a small portion of industry suppliers irradiate ground beef, he adds.

Theno says ground-beef processors could do a better job of informing their foodservice customers that undercooking beef could potentially lead to an E. coli outbreak.

“It wouldn’t hurt if they spoke up a little more,” Theno adds. “But [suppliers] will tell you that they probably don’t like to get involved with these things.”

Jamie Schweid, who with his father and brother owns and operates Carlstadt, NJ-based Schweid & Sons, a large ground beef processor that sells to thousands of restaurants and hundreds of supermarkets, believes the industry has reduced the threat of E. coli thanks to increased intervention steps at plants and stepped-up food safety programs.

“As an industry, we take E.coli O157:H7 very seriously,” Schweid says. “Every company in the industry should be very concerned [about an outbreak].”

But Schweid says he would never tell his foodservice customers that they should cook the company’s ground beef products to 155? F to ensure their safety.

“I don’t tell my customers that they should put cheese on their burgers. I don’t tell them that they should use a certain bun,” he says. “Our job is to provide information to our customers so they can make informed decisions. But we don’t like to make recommendations to our customers on what they should or shouldn’t be doing.”

CDC: Salmonella a growing threat in ground beef

The number of foodborne illness outbreaks attributed to Salmonella in undercooked ground beef has increased, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Hannah Gould, Ph.D., an epidemiologist who previously worked in the CDC’s Division of Foodborne, Waterborne and Environmental Diseases, says ground beef is the fourth most common cause of Salmonella outbreaks.

“Adequate cooking should kill Salmonella just like adequate cooking should kill E. coli O157:H7,” Gould says. “But a problem with Salmonella is that many of these outbreaks involve multi-drug resistant strains. That is concerning because those infections tend to be more severe and harder to treat.”

Salmonella is estimated to be the most common bacterial cause of foodborne illness in the US, leading to an estimated 1 million foodborne illnesses annually, according to the CDC.

In its study, “Outbreaks of Salmonella infections attributed to beef – United States, 1973-2011,” the CDC reports that of the 1,965 outbreaks of Salmonella between 1973 and 2011 where a food vehicle was implicated, 96 were attributed to beef and accounted for 3,684 illnesses. The CDC notes that during this time there was also a shift in the type of beef implicated in Salmonella from roast to ground beef.

Ground beef emerged as an important vehicle in the 2000s and was implicated in 17 (45 percent) of the 38 beef attributed outbreaks reported during 2002-2011, the CDC reported. Although the emergence was likely due in part to increased participation in CDC’s PulseNet and proactive decisions by the US Dept. of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, stronger measures are needed to decrease contamination of ground beef with Salmonella, the CDC concluded.

An issue with Salmonella is it isn’t listed as an adulterant like E. coli O157:H7 is in ground beef, Gould said.

“We’re certainly seeing more outbreaks [in ground beef] and I think it’s a problem. I think if [Salmonella] was labeled as an adulterant there would be more of an emphasis to remove it from the food supply, and we would see fewer outbreaks linked to it,” Gould noted.