24th August 2017

Burgers – Think Before You Go Pink

Trendier and more popular than ever, burgers have firmly established itself as a favourite in the UK. It’s a product that ranges from the high end restaurant to the good old burger van, with a million variations in between.

But whether gourmet or gristly, one thing all burgers potentially have in common is E.coli O157.

Commonly known as the BBQ bug due to its association with undercooked burgers, E.coli O157 can be devastating. At its mildest, it causes diarrhoea but extreme poisoning can cause potentially fatal renal failure children and the elderly are particularly vulnerable.

So how do you like yours?

Does a pink and juicy burger get your taste buds tingling or would even the slightest touch of pink set alarm bells ringing and be cause for complaint?

Why can steak be served rare but not burgers?

Fiona Sinclair, Director of leading UK food safety consultancy STS, explains: “Although steak and burgers are, typically, both derived from beef the two products couldn’t be further apart when it comes to risk. Most harmful bacteria that are found on meat are generally just present on the surface. When we cook steak, heat destroys the surface bacteria leaving the inside safe to eat, so there’s no problem. The difference with burgers is the mincing process. Any bacteria which may be on the surface of the product will become mixed up when the meat is minced and are likely to end up inside the product. Just as few as 100 E.coli 0157 bacteria have to survive the cooking process in order to cause illness.

“Thorough cooking of burgers will ensure that any harmful bacteria present in the meat will be destroyed. The Food Standards Agency (FSA) advises that they reach a safe core temperature of 70°C for 2 minutes or equally 75°C for 30 seconds; this should be checked using a probe thermometer.

Should restaurants be taking more precautions when serving burgers?

“We have seen a definite trend in recent years for more restaurants to serve pink burgers despite the risks and it’s one of the areas where consumer demands don’t necessarily go along with the safest route! In 2016 the FSA finally acknowledged the trend and set down guidelines for food businesses to follow to reduce the risks. Food businesses that wish to sell pink burgers are now able to do so, if they follow guidance, including:

  • Notify the local authority of their intention to serve burgers medium/rare
  • Place consumer advisory statements on menus to help make sure customers are aware of the risks
  • Put in place a series of precautions to reduce risks within their food safety management system

“Risk reduction approaches include using the sear and shave method, where the surface of the meat is heated and shaved off. The remaining meat is then minced under hygienic conditions. Purchasing meat from a supplier who has been approved to supply mince intended to be eaten raw/lightly cooked is another option, although such suppliers can be hard to find.

“While some businesses may see this as having to jump through unnecessary hoops, it’s not without good reason. An increasing number of responsible restaurants and fast food outlets are diligently following the FSA guidelines. However, there are still plenty of businesses who are unaware the guidelines exist, or don’t comply with them. This could be down to a lack of technical expertise or, simply disregard for the guidelines. Owners may be simply deciding to prioritise consumer choice over safety.”

How can consumers make an educated decision about pink burgers when eating out, without risking illness?

“This can be difficult to establish but there are simple indicators you can look for that will give you clues as to whether you are dealing with an operator who is aware of and controlling the risks. These include:

  • Have they got a consumer advisory statement on menus?
  • Do they have a food hygiene rating of 5?
  • Are they happy to answer your questions?

“In recent years, EHO’s have taken several food businesses to court and the decision as to whether they should be prohibited from or permitted to serving pink burgers has swung both ways. In each case, the deciding factor has been how diligent and responsible each restaurant is with regard to controlling risks.

“Although, fortunately, the incidence of E.coli O157 is relatively rare, the consequences are high. Eating a pink burger from a business that doesn’t take suitable precautions is akin to playing Russian roulette.

“The safest option is always to opt for a thoroughly cooked burger, and this is the only sensible option for people who are particularly vulnerable e.g. children, the elderly, those with low immunity and pregnant women. Ultimately, whether pink burgers are safe or not depends on individual businesses and the precautions that they have in place.”

Is it safe to eat pink burgers at home?  

“If you have bought, or are making, burgers to cook at home, it is very unlikely that the mince/burgers you will be using will have been produced with the intention of being eaten medium or rare. This means that, potentially, they could be contaminated with E.coli or other bugs. We would always advise people to cook burgers thoroughly at home. Make visual checks to ensure they are cooked through or invest in a digital probe thermometer for a few pounds.”

Other concerns

“It’s not just undercooked burgers that can make us sick. Any food that has been subject to cross contamination from harmful bacteria can have serious consequences.

“E.coli O157 is a food borne disease which means that, unlike food poisoning bacteria such as Salmonella, you only need to consume a low number of bacteria to cause illness. Contamination alone is enough to make us poorly; food borne diseases do not need to multiply on food in order to cause illness.

Campylobacter is another harmful bacteria that can be found in or on raw burgers, and is the most common cause of gastroenteritis in the UK. As few as 500 Campylobacter can cause really unpleasant illness. So you can see just how careful we need to be when preventing cross contamination. Food businesses should be following the FSA’s specific guidance to avoid cross contamination. This is a key focus area for EHO’s when undertaking food hygiene inspections.

Should the same precautions be taken in the home?

“Similar precautions also need to be taken in the home using simple measures. This includes keeping raw meat e.g. burgers below any cooked or ready to eat foods. Keeping raw and ready to eat foods separate during preparation and using separate equipment for raw food wherever possible. Thorough cleaning and disinfection of surfaces and equipment is critical after they have come into contact with raw burgers. As are simple practices such as thorough hand washing.

“Cross contamination is another reason E.coli 0157 is referred to as the BBQ bug. Controlling cross contamination on a home BBQ, when raw and cooked food is handled simultaneously, can be tricky. It’s easy to ignore simple hygiene practices when firing up the BBQ and cooking for friends and family, but actually it’s worth thinking things through and putting simple good practices in place. It’s not worth ignoring the risks from undercooking or cross contamination which could be especially devastating when feeding friends and family who are children, elderly, ill or pregnant.”

To summarise

“Thorough cooking and cross contamination controls are vital both in the home and professional kitchens. The only exception is when food businesses follow current FSA guidance for cooking burgers pink or rare. However, even then, it is not advisable for vulnerable groups.”


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