Undercooked burgers - The facts
Burger mania has come to Brighton and with it an insatiable desire for partially cooked patties. The rare burger has become the ultimate in gourmet fast food and the market for them has grown exponentially over the past few years. I know I’m not telling you anything new here, you can barely pick up a magazine recently without some kind of homage to undercooked minced beef in a bun.
Recently we have had countless requests for burgers cooked less than well done and unfortunately that is not something we can do right now. Rather than reply to you each individually, I felt it best to write one long post explaining everything.
In doing this I hope to dispel some of the myths, to try and give you all a whole and balanced picture regarding the safety of rare burgers so you, as customers, can make an informed choice when eating out as to how you want your burger cooked.
There seems to be growing confusion about what is and isn’t allowed when it comes to the safe preparation and cooking of burgers with many people being under the impression that minced beef is completely safe and so long as you source your meat well there is no risk to the public.
This viewpoint is not shared by environmental health who believe that the risk of E coli 157 is present in minced beef and special preventative measures need to be put in place to ensure that all of this bacteria is killed.
Let me start off with a few FAQ’s….
Isn’t it just the same as cooking a steak? I can have that cooked rare, why not burgers?
It isn’t the same due to the very nature of a burger pattie. When cooking a steak, all of the areas that are exposed to the elements are heated to the point where bacteria will be killed. If bacteria is present on the surface of a steak, then the act of cooking will kill everything. This isn’t the case with a burger as the very act of mincing means the outsides end up inside. While beef is generally regarded as safe, if for example a chef were to touch some bacteria and then handle the meat prior to mincing, the bacteria would be spread throughout the entire pattie which if cooked rare, would not be killed by heat. It is also speculated that the E coli bacteria which is present in the stomach of the cow may contaminate the surface of the meat during the slaughtering stage.
What about medium or medium well? Are they allowed?
Unfortunately not. Microbiologists that work for EHO claim that in order to kill all bacteria, the patties need to be cooked to a core temperature of 75C for 30 seconds. This inevitably means the burgers will be well done. There may sometimes be the odd trace of pink depending on many factors such as shape, temperature of griddle and cooking times, but in general there shouldn’t be.
Is it possible for rare burgers to be allowed by using any special methods of preparation?
There is a method suggested by EHO which allow restaurants to sell their burgers rare. The goal is for the surface bacteria that may be present on the meat needs to be killed prior to mincing. EHO suggest that the cut of meat is seared with heat on the outside, prior to mincing. Then the surface of the meat is shaved off. There are a number of problems with this method however. One, being the extra time, equipment and due to the extra wastage of meat this could increase the cost of the burgers quite substantially. This is why this practice is not often used as it simply pushes the cost of the burger too high for most people. I’ve also heard of people spraying meat with anti bacterial spray before mincing, but I haven’t checked the safety of that with EHO nor would it be a practice I’d like to undertake.
Wasn’t there a judge in a London court case that said rare burgers were safe?
Yes and no. Westminster council recently issued a food improvement notice to a London chain called “Davy’s” telling them they had to stop selling rare burgers. Davy’s appealed the notice and made their case in court. The judge concluded that the “Sear and Shave” method suggested by EHO was not necessarily safe in itself as by shaving the meat you are adding an extra process to the mincing which could result in more contamination. The judge also concluded that the supplier of Davy’s, known as Donald Russell produced the meat as “safe to eat raw” in accordance with EU regulation ec2073/2005. Davy’s won the case and are now able to sell their burgers rare, however the judge was wary of the repercussions of the ruling, worrying that other restaurants may go on to sell burgers rare without such strict measures as Davy’s, therefore causing a danger to the public.
Can’t you just ask us to sign a waiver?
Probably the most frequently asked question. Sadly the answer is no. A waiver in the eyes of insurance law is not worth the paper it’s printed on.
Do loads of people get seriously ill from rare burgers?
There have been some instances of E coli food poisoning from rare burgers in the US and in Europe. So far there have been no proven cases in the UK linking burgers to E coli 157, but that doesn’t mean there won’t ever be. Statistically speaking its very unlikely you will, but as long as there is a theoretical risk it will not be allowed by EHO.
Why are oysters, steak tartar and puffer fish allowed?
I believe with steak tartar the sear and shave method is also required to be used. As for the others, I really don’t know.
Isn’t it safe so long as the meat is sourced well and of good quality?
Not in the eyes of EHO. They claim that no matter what measures are in place during the preparation of the meat, a risk is still posed at the slaughter stage where cross contamination can still occur.
Why are rare burgers so commonplace in London, but in Brighton it feels like you can only get them in an “under the counter” manner, with no mention of it on menus?
The rules regarding safe cooking of burgers apply nationwide, however some areas are stricter at enforcing them than others. Brighton is very strict in comparison to London. Personally, I feel this ambiguity adds to a lot of the confusion and is why many people don’t know the rules about how burgers should be cooked. Chances are, if the restaurant doesn’t ask you how you want it cooked when ordering, or have it printed anywhere on the menus, then they are doing them against the advice of EHO and will eventually be made to stop.
So are rare burgers safe? I honestly can’t tell you that. There are many who call into question the validity of the science that is used to justify the rare burger crack down but without a PHD in microbiology myself I can’t claim to know. All I do know is what I have detailed here. The chances are you probably won’t get ill, but if you are elderly, a child, pregnant, or have a weak immune system I wouldn’t recommend eating an undercooked burger. E Coli 157 is very serious and can result in liver failure and even death.
As a chef myself I feel that with so much contradictory science and opinions it’s better to play it safe. I certainly don’t want to be responsible for anyone getting seriously ill or even dying. I’m going to look into ways that we can use the sear and shave method, but I worry many of you will be reluctant to pay the increased prices. For the time being at least, they will all be cooked well done. I’d appreciate it if you wouldn’t pressure our staff to cook them anything other than well done as they are under strict instructions to play by the rules. The pressure for restaurants to offer rare burgers is already incredibly high, with the public wrongly assuming that those who don’t are obviously peddling some kind of inferior quality meat. The disparity between the public knowledge of what is and isn’t safe with regards to burgers and the advice being meated out (pun intended) by EHO is the biggest problem. As a lover of a rare burger myself I sincerely hope all the evidence that rare burgers are dangerous gets rubbished and we can all go back to stuffing our faces with bloody meat but for now I have to play by the rules.
I hope you all respect this decision and understand the reasons why we can’t offer burgers anything other than well done. I hope you also appreciate that our meat is and always will be of the highest quality and personally I’d rather have a well done burger from wild range, grass fed Longhorn than a bloody pattie of cheap minced lips and arseholes from the cash and carry. I hope you feel the same.