Swedish authorities announced they will be reviewing the controls local restaurants have on undercooked beef used for burgers. Recent research showed that half of the restaurants surveyed had no HACCP controls to prevent contaminated ground beef from making customers sick.
Unfortunately, there still remains a debate on serving undercooked burgers (or ground beef) to customers. Over the past 30 years there have been countless outbreaks associated with contaminated undercooked beef. Even though E. coli is the most common, other pathogens can also contaminate ground beef and make consumers sick if served undercooked. The first such outbreak was the highly publicized Jack in the Box outbreak in 1993 that resulted in 732 sick and four children dying from E. coli-tainted burgers. The cause of the outbreak was due to undercooked burgers—Jack in the Box insisted on serving their burgers at 145º F. They claimed it made their burgers juicier and better tasting. However, 145º F was ineffective in killing the E. coli that was mixed into the beef. Twenty-six years later, the beef industry hasn’t figured out how to prevent pathogens from contaminating ground beef used for burgers. Therefore, the preventive control should be at the retail establishments.
Today, there are some restaurants that will allow a customer to choose if they want an undercooked burger, and they believe their consumer advisory absolves them of responsibility if a customer becomes ill. However, this is misguided. Restaurant customers have an expectation of eating food that is safe and free of contamination. No customer would order an undercooked burger if they knew it would make them sick. Even though a restaurant may give a customer the option of ordering an undercooked burger, they still have a responsibility to do it safely. If they can’t guarantee the safety of their menu items, they shouldn’t have them on the menu.
So, what’s the answer to this debate? The easy option is to serve all ground beef fully cooked, which is 155º F or hotter. This is the best defense against E. coli-contaminated burgers making customers sick. If serving undercooked burgers is a must, then restaurants should prepare their own ground beef. Source fully intact beef and grind it in the restaurant. This way, a restaurant can control the processing and make sure E. coli isn’t present.
It’s great to see Sweden taking steps to protect the public from illnesses associated with undercooked burgers. Last year, Ireland faced a similar dilemma. The Food Safety Authority of Ireland noticed a trend in catering establishments serving undercooked ground beef, and they conducted an investigation. Testing that was performed in 2014 and 2015 showed that 30% of ground beef is contaminated with Salmonella and Listeria. Also, an outbreak in 2016 resulted in 11 cases of E. coli from a restaurant serving undercooked burgers.
Until the beef industry figures out how to prevent ground beef from becoming contaminated, restaurants need to put in place strict HACCP principles to prevent foodborne illness. Follow these steps to protect your customers and brand:
Is serving undercooked burgers in the best interest of a restaurant’s customers and business? With all the risk and liability associated with serving undercooked burgers, the answer is “no.” Restaurant owners and managers have a responsibility to do what’s right for keeping customers safe from foodborne illness.