The premium burger market continues to grow with chains dedicated to the meat patty in a bun expanding rapidly. According to the latest Horizon’s Menu Trends report, beef burgers are the most frequently listed item on a menu, up 41 per cent since last summer and there are no signs of a decline.
Many would say the tastiest way to cook the beef patty is pink in the middle as, in the words of burger chain Byron it keeps the meat 'juicy and succulent'.
However, according to food safety and health & safety consultancy STS, the increase of cases where diners have contracted Escherichia Coli 0157, more commonly known as E.coli, as a result of eating under-cooked, and in many cases potentially raw beef, are also on the increase.
Although there are no rules against serving burgers rare or medium rare, the Food Standards Agency advises food businesses to have ‘necessary additional controls in place to allow them to prepare and serve the burgers safely’.
Mike Williams, consultancy director at STS reminds operators of the safety controls they should have in place before the patty hits the grill.
Why are rare or pink burgers risky?
E.coli is naturally present in the digestive tract of cows but is not found through the meat of the animal (unlike bacteria such as campylobacter in chicken). E.coli therefore may only be found on the outer surfaces of cuts of beef if there has been contamination of the meat during the slaughter process. Therefore cooking the surface of the meat thoroughly is likely to kill off any bacteria, allowing whole cuts like steak to be served rare.
However, the usual rules of cooking the meat to reduce the risk of bacteria affecting consumer all changes when the beef is minced (or ground). Should bacteria be present on the surface of a steak and that piece of meat is minced to make a burger patty, the act of mincing it effectively turns the meat inside out. The previously protected inner part of the meat is now in contact with the contaminated outer, with any bacterial contamination being spread throughout the entire burger. This process is further compounded by the fact that some types of E.coli are a low dosage pathogen, which means that only the merest trace of the bacteria is required to cause illness.
How do you ensure pink or rare burgers are safe to eat?
The Advisory Committee on the Microbiological Safety of Food (ACMSF) advises that ground beef should be cooked to a core temperature of 70⁰C for two minutes to make it safe to eat.
However, there are some accepted exceptions. Steak tartare, for example, a dish which can be served raw, is often prepared using a method known as ‘sear and shave’. The surface of the meat can be heat seared, then shaved off before the raw interior is hand chopped under controlled conditions.
This approach has also been used to create the correct quality of meat for the ‘rare’ burger; however, this is labour intensive, adds to the cost of preparation and results in wasted product and higher unit costs.
Reduce contamination in the kitchen
Having good food safety practices and controlling the risk of cross contamination in the kitchen are crucial to ensure the risks are minimised.
Beef cuts, such as a steak, are generally regarded as being low risk, because the high temperature used to sear the outside kills off bacteria. However, if a chef was to come in contact with a contaminated surface or handle a steak that contained bacteria before going ahead and mincing it, the bacteria could then be spread throughout the entire patty.
If the patty was cooked rare, the transferred bacteria would not be killed by heat. Similarly, if equipment such as mincing machines are not kept clean or are used for ‘poorer’ quality beef than that destined for the burgers then cross contamination can occur.
Furthermore many establishments may cook burgers from frozen. If cooked to be ‘pink’ in the centre, that patty may be raw, even cold, with no heat present and certainly not enough temperature to kill off any present E.coli bacteria.
Identifying all control points in the preparation of burgers, at least in line with the FSA guidance is crucial to minimise risks.
If the intention is still to proceed, working with a reputable food safety professional to make sure that they get it right is a very sensible step to take.
Don’t just rely on good sourcing
There are misconceptions when considering the cooking and serving of pink or rare burgers. Some operators will say ‘minced beef is completely safe to eat rare as long as it is sourced responsibly and of good quality’. This isn’t entirely true.
How the animal is slaughtered and butchered, how it enters the food chain, how the meat is stored, handled and finally cooked are all critical factors in making the product safe. If these steps are not taken correctly, good sourcing makes no difference.