Many Servers Can't Tell When a Burger Is Fully Cooked

Many servers can't tell when a burger is fully cooked
January 10, 2017

Imagine you're at your favorite burger spot. You scan the menu for the best cheeses, toppings and buns but at the bottom of the menu, in small, italicized print you see this warning: “Consuming undercooked meats may increase risk of foodborne illness.”

The FDA Food Code requires restaurants to post those warnings so that diners know the potential risks of chowing down. Sushi restaurants, steakhouses, burger joints and any other restaurant that serves meat, poultry or fish cooked less than well done must display the warning.

Rare BurgerA new study from NC State University and RTI International, however, shows that wait staff are not as good at communicating those risks. In fact, 77 percent of the waiters surveyed gave unreliable information on food safety. The researchers published their findings in the Journal of Food Protection.

Ben Chapman, an associate professor and extension specialist at NC State, sent undercover “secret shoppers” into 265 full-service restaurants around the country with a single mission: to evaluate what their servers said and knew about how their restaurant ensures the meat is safe to eat.

Each undercover diner ordered two burgers: one medium-rare and one well done, recording whether and how the server brought up the risk of eating undercooked meat. If the server did not bring it up, the shopper would ask about the risks of getting sick and mark down what the server said.

The USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service recommends a minimum internal temperature of 160 degrees Fahrenheit for all ground meats to ensure all bacteria in the meat are destroyed.

That, however, was not the message that many of the waiters gave. Ellen Thomas, a food safety expert at RTI International and lead author of the study said in a press release that many of the servers referred to other indicators of doneness, like the pinkness in the center of the burger.

“The indicator of safety most widely reported by servers was the color of the burger, and that’s also not a reliable indicator at all,” Thomas said. “Time and temperature are all that matter. An undercooked, unsafe burger can be brown in the middle, and a safely cooked burger can still be red or pink in the center.”

CheeseburgerAnother measure the servers frequently referred to was whether the juices in the burger ran clear, Thomas said, which is also not a reliable indicator of doneness.

Servers at chain restaurants were more likely to give accurate information than those at independent restaurants, a finding Chapman attributed to more standardized training for employees of large chains.

An important note is that the researchers did not test for and therefore did not find any undercooked meat, but the main issue here is one of communication. The researchers found that most of the menus had the correct risk disclaimer written on the bottom, but if the servers downplay the risks of eating an undercooked burger or tell customers incorrect information on how the chefs know their meat is cooked, that can confuse customers or influence them to take more risks than they otherwise would.

Further, there are concrete risks to eating undercooked ground beef. Specific strains of E. coli bacteria that produce a chemical called Shiga-toxin can live in ground beef. These types of E. coli can cause severe stomach cramps, bloody diarrhea and vomiting, and have been linked to several multistate outbreaks over the past 10 years. These outbreaks generally affect a few dozen people at the most, but many of those people have to go to the hospital and the infections can sometimes be lethal.

Food providers from restaurants to large companies to the Federal government take E. coli extremely seriously. Outbreaks often result in recalls of millions of pounds of meat, and according to Chapman and Thomas 25 percent of the restaurants in the study would not even sell a medium-rare burger. 

The best way to prevent E. coli and other bacterial infections in meat is to make sure the meat is cooked to the correct temperature for the correct amount of time, and you can find the USDA’s recommendations for cooking meat, poultry and seafood here.

Still, there are plenty of tasty options for raw and undercooked food like sushi, oysters and rare meat. Chapman says restaurants could be great places to educate people on the risks of eating such foods, and in the case of the rare meat, how to ensure it is cooked all the way though.

For now though, Chapman said, if you have questions about your meat, you might want to ask a manager.

—Daniel Lane

Daniel Lane covers science, medicine, engineering and the environment in North Carolina.

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