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Burgers: rare or well done?

Following my previous post about the dangers of eating raw pork, people have been asking whether it’s safe to eat burgers rare, or cooked with a ‘pink blush’ in the middle.

The advice being given in some food articles, recipes and by celebrity chefs is a bit confusing and not altogether accurate. Some are suggesting that it makes a difference whether you’re talking about a ready-made burger, or mincing and making your own. Or that buying a better quality, more expensive cut of meat makes a difference.  Put bluntly: it doesn’t.

Our advice for burgers made from any type of meat therefore continues to be the same as for cuts of pork; they should always be cooked until steaming hot right through. Cooking in this way kills any bugs, such as E.coli or salmonella, which may be present on or in the meat. This applies whether you are buying a ready-made burger or making your own with mince you have bought from the supermarket or butcher.

It is safe to eat rare beef or lamb steak because searing the outside surface of a piece of steak, such as when cooked rare, will kill any bugs that might have contaminated the outside.  However, the same doesn't go for minced products like burgers - even those described as ‘steak burgers’ or when making your own burgers from ‘steak mince’. This is because any bugs that may have been on the surface of the raw meat will be spread throughout the burger when meat is minced, so any pink meat may still contain harmful bacteria, whether raw or in a burger that’s cooked on the outside.

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Comments:

I do believe that cooking food thoroughly will indefinitely be the safest. But I can't see what so scientific about this article.

There must be thousands of places in the world serving rare burgers or other lightly cooked food dishes. My thoughts are that, we need to balance the possibility that contamination can happen at any stages during preparation and cooking. At the same time, we are not overcooking the products and rendering them tasteless or unappealing. Many chefs are trying to aim for that perfect balance between producing a safe product and still able to satisfy their customers with true flavour of the food.

If cooking everything to charcoal means that it is safe. Then surely there is no more joy of tasting any good quality food. Say, rare in our eyes is pink? What if the meat was just at the turning point of from pink to grey/brown? Can we assume that pink is always dangerous? What if the meat is still pink but the cooking procedure managed to pasteurise the meat completely? Moreover, if comparing safety between cheap cuts and high quality of meats are the same, this really undermined that many chefs’ efforts! A lot of them are like food critics, who travelled; interviewed; observed and sampled to get the best ingredients, and a lot of them care very much on hygiene, other than just the appearance and flavour.

This is a just a broad guideline for everything that many of us know already.

Posted by Celine on July 20, 2012 at 05:36 PM BST #

The science in this article is there - but it's dealt with in a simple and informative way. Basic microbiology with respect to bacteria present on/in your food.

When meat is minced up, the bacteria present on the surface are then incorporated through the product which is why it's unsafe to eat a pink burger. Especially when it doesn't take that many E coli O157 bugs to cause illness. Cooking to charcoal is an extreme and one that most chefs wouldn't aspire to.

Just a pity that all our TV chefs don't always practice good hand hygiene or prevent cross-contamination. If people see the famous chefs do it, then it must be acceptable! Any chance that the FSA could engage with the TV Channels and encourage some better food hygiene practices from our famous foodies?

Posted by Christine on July 23, 2012 at 10:10 AM BST #

I completely agree with highlighting the inherent risks of undercooking a commuted meat product versus a steak. One has only to look to France as evidence of this with recent cases of children in hospital with HUS as a complication of ingesting VTEC bacteria due to the consumption of undercooked burgers, infact the largest outbreak of HUS in France in 2005 was linked to this. As there are higher risk population groups such as the elderly, children and the immuno-compromised who stand a higher probability of permanent kidney damage or death, it would be irresponsible not to create awareness is this risk. A consumer or chef is then equipped to make an informed choice as to whether or not to follow cooking guidance and understands the consequences should they decide not to.

Posted by Bruce on July 23, 2012 at 12:45 PM BST #

Well said Celine. Scientists may be very knowledgeable but it take the years of experience, appreciation and understanding to know how to turn a raw material into a gastronomic delight. Scientists will tell us that a tomato is a fruit but any cook will know not to put it in a fruit salad

Posted by Jim on July 25, 2012 at 10:44 AM BST #

It is not illegal to sell rare hamburgers and there are EC Regs stating the micrbiological criteria for mince which is to be eaten raw or undercooked.

If the FSA's advice is to be consistent, it should apply equally to similar ready-to-eat raw animal products, such as steak tartare.

If the advice is taken to extremes, why not outlaw other raw animal products such carpaccio, salami and oysters, all of which carry a potential risk to the consumer!

Anything is possible - it's whether it is probable! There is no evidence in the UK that infection from eating rare hamburgers is out of control.

Posted by Paul on July 26, 2012 at 06:53 PM BST #

Hi Celine

I think Andrew made the point quite clearly that the degree of cooking required to be safe is not an absolute but depends on the nature of the product. It is therefore quite acceptable from a food safety point of view to serve a rare joint of meat as the risk of microbiological contamination of the core of the meat is minimal. With a minced product such as a burger there is not only the spread of microorganisms throughout the product during the mincing process there is also the open texture of the product that provides sufficient oxygen for micro growth. To serve these products rare is therefore a significantly greater risk.
If a food business wishes to take these risks in the name of food quality then it must be prepared to take the potential consequences should problems occur as they would have no due diligence defence.
This of course does not deny the right to any consumer to choose how they wish to consume their food but it is perfectly responsible for Andrew to point out the increased risks that they are taking should they choose to consume a rare burger

Posted by DavidM on August 02, 2012 at 10:35 AM BST #

The point of it not being pink is most meats turn "not pink" at approximately 70 deg which is the minimum temperature required (for two minutes) to kill most pathogenic bacteria. While it is possible to cook to a lower temperature for longer periods using such methods as sous vide this is beyond the skills and controls of most catering establishments in the uk. The point is also we are talking about a minced product. This means the outside of the meat muscle has been mixed through the entire product. Any meat can be considered to be fecally contaminated on the surface due to production methods.

Posted by Duncan Swan on August 10, 2012 at 07:12 PM BST #

Yes, containation can occur at any stage of processing and preparation. The responsibility firmly lies with the manufacturer/ supplier of the product that every part of the production process is controlled in such a way that limits the potential for pathogenic bacteria to not only be present on any product but also either at a level to cause illness or exposed to environmental factors that encourage more rapid growth of harmful microorganisms.
This includes temperature abuse, removing the product from its packaging too long before its cooked/ used.

The reason for cooking comminuted (i.e. minced/ mixed) meat products is explained well in the body of the blog and it is the potential for pathogens to transmute into potentially uncooked or lightly-cooked areas of the product (i.e. the pink bit in the middle) prior to cooking that the public should be encouraged to avoid. Muscle tenderness is not necessarily improved with comminuted products anyway as the muscle fibres micro structure is fractured during the mincing process and the age and cooking method of the product becomes less-significant with specifically tenderness. Thorough cooking should be encouraged for all comminuted fresh meat products of all species.

Posted by Joe Szpalek on August 15, 2012 at 01:06 PM BST #

Sorry Celine -Andrew Wadge is spot on and eating undercooked burgers is stupid. He makes it clear there is a difference betwen minced meat products, where bugs can survive in the middle and are dangerous and steaks which are rare [pink] because the inside of meat is sterile and which are not.
If you want to have a go at Andrew ask him about why steak tartare has not been banned. You can be prosecuted for cross contaminating cooked meats with bugs from raw meats but not for selling raw meat [with a raw egg to boot].
Ask him why the meat industry spends millions [making meat more expensive for the consumer] having to implement meaningless paperwork exercises [called Haccp] and keeping pointless records about non existent ''control points'' enforced by an army of his official vets mostly imported from abroad and many not even able to speak English...

Posted by Roy M on August 16, 2012 at 05:55 PM BST #

This comment is typical of ignorant members of the public - I teach food safety and find that this short sighted ignorance is rampant - which is probably why there are so many cases of food poisoning annually. The old saying is true - there are none as blind as those who will not see. I only hope that people like the one making this comment do not engage in catering - hopefully they will only put themselves at danger.

Posted by paa on August 17, 2012 at 07:25 PM BST #

Hello Andrew,

All the food chains would hate me for writing this. Burgers are not healthy in either form. If cooking makes everything healthy, there should be no cases of obesity or abdominal diseases in this world. I do agree that most of the tips given by chefs and health experts are confusing. It is up to an individual to decide if he wants to stay healthy for a long time or would like to fall a prey to the temptations.

Regards,
Andy

Posted by Andy on August 25, 2012 at 06:30 PM BST #

Does paa have any scientific argument [as opposed to rehtoric] to enlighten us?
Sorry Joe, most of think that meat should be properly cooked. It follows therefore that overdoing food safety at stages prior to cooking is a complete waste of time and resources. Recources that could be better used further up the food chain.
I agree about TV chefs and have tons of correspondence over the years about it, especially those who give steak tartare 'recipes'. The BBC has a totally irresponsible policy and have told me variously, 'that their chefs are experts and know what they are talking about'. 'broadcasting such recipes is not encouraging people to try it'! It is a question of consumer choice!!!'
They claimed [to me] at one point to have issued instructions that such recipes should not be broadcast without a health warning [as if that would save you]. Recently their new [french] kid on the block came up with a steak tartare recipe with no health warning at all. Look on their recipe websites. Last time I looked there were 12 recipes for this stuff - health warning - bunkum.

Posted by RoyM on August 29, 2012 at 01:37 PM BST #

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