National Burger Day – The Rare Burger Debate

BurgerThe burger might have originated in the USA but its popularity here in the UK is higher than ever. Branded burger restaurants are going from strength to strength across the country with established brands such as GBK and Byron and new imports from the US like Shake Shack and Five Guys making their presence known. From football stadia to festivals, country fairs to food shows, it’s safe to say that the popularity of the burger is here to stay if the queues at the burger vans are to be believed.

What doesn’t go away is the debate around the rare burger. Just like steaks, some consumers prefer to have their burgers served pink but what safety controls do restaurants need to have in place before the burger hits the bun?

The Food Standards Agency offers guidance which allows for pink burgers to be served to consumers as long as certain strict criteria are met. This is good news for the consumer as well as the larger restaurant brands which have the resources to ensure that the guidance criteria are met, however, smaller burger providers are at significant risk of falling foul of enforcement action or indeed causing illness to their customers from organisms such as E.coli.

E.coli is naturally present in the digestive tract of cows but is not found through the meat of the animal, which means E.coli should only be found on the outer cuts of beef if there was contamination of the meat during the slaughter process. Cooking the surface of the meat thoroughly, even if the steak is served rare, is likely to kill off any bacteria.

The reason the guidance for burgers differs from that for steak is because burger meat is minced or ground. If the surfaces of the cuts of beef which are being used have bacteria present then the act of mincing these cuts will spread the bacteria throughout the entire burger.

One of the key recommendations in the FSA guidance is the provision of beef from a good source where steps are taken to reduce the risk of contamination from E.coli. This is all very well but at present there is no formal approval scheme in place. The FSA is currently undertaking consultation around the specific approval of meat cutting plants to produce minced meat or meat preparations intended to be eaten less than thoroughly cooked. This can only be a welcome addition. Presently there are only two FSA approved establishments that can provide such products in the UK so the introduction of a specific approval scheme which can be available to all meat suppliers at little to no cost is a positive step.

Of course, there are other options to providing safe rare burgers. ‘Sear and shave’ is likely the simplest and best known control method where whole cuts of meat have their external surfaces seared before being trimmed and ground. The added expense of wasted meat is usually a negative, particularly for small businesses, but this method allows for burgers to be cooked to temperatures below the recommended 70°C for 2 minutes.

Some burger vans, particularly at festivals and football stadia, may cook burgers from frozen. When these are being cooked to be pink in the centre then there is the risk that the meat might be raw, even still cold with no heat present, and not enough temperature to kill off any E.coli bacteria which might be present in the patty.

Some of the FSA guidance is simple to meet e.g. the introduction of advisory guidance on menus. This in principle seems reasonable although the British Hospitality Association doesn’t necessarily agree with the recommendation, stating ‘if food is safe to eat then a notice is not needed’. STS agrees with this stance. Director Mike Williams says: “Food is either safe or not safe. Stating on a menu that food is potentially not safe to eat isn’t going to do anything for consumer confidence and may indeed be detrimental to a business’s defence should the worst happen.”

We’ve all seen the mouth-watering pictures of juicy burgers on adverts and menus and when the right controls are in place rare burgers can be enjoyed by consumers.

There is further guidance to Environmental Health Officers as to when to take enforcement action. Many food business operators will not be aware of this guide and therefore take a risk by preparing and serving rare burgers while unaware of or ignoring the FSA guidance.

The expectation and guidance for cooking burgers is that they should be cooked to over 70°C for 2 minutes, which likely means that they will be cooked through and not at all pink. This may be contrary to the hopes or expectations of the food business operator as well as the consumer but, until simpler controls which don’t require expensive ‘challenge testing’ and equipment that can produce a consistent product every time are available to all businesses, the debate around the safety of the rare burger is certain to continue.