Dr Lisa Ackerley considers whether undercooked burgers should be on the menu
It’s a plain fact – on a steak, contamination is likely to be on the outside surface. If you cook steak on the outside, then it should be safe even if it is rare in the middle. BUT!!!! Please read this carefully – despite the gung-ho approach taken by many foodies and chefs, undercooked burgers can be very dangerous, and that also goes for steak tartare.
The reason why minced meat is potentially dangerous is simply that minced up meat is of course more likely to include contamination all the way through, as what was the outside of a piece of meat is now mixed up with the inside. That’s why you should not serve an undercooked burgers or eat raw mince.
How cooked does a burger need to be?
Whilst it is pretty obvious that the burger in the photograph is virtually raw, what about the medium cooked ones, or those that are just pink? Are they safe? (Don’t get me started on the fact that this burger is served on a heavily scored wooden platter…)
A government committee, the ACMSF in the UK makes strong recommendations that burgers should be cooked to 70°C for 2 minutes or equivalent including 75°C for 18 seconds.
Quite often we are told to cook meats till they are “piping hot” in the middle and cooked till juices “run clear”.
But the trouble with this is it is subjective – what does that mean? Furthermore, a the Food Safety and Inspectorate Service (FSIS) in the USA says that colour is not a particularly good indicator of whether a burger is cooked safely! For a long time in the USA the advice has been for consumers to use a probe thermometer to check temperatures are high enough for safety.
Interestingly, the Americans found a burger paradox about using the colour of burgers to test for doneness and destruction of dangerous bacteria:
- Some under cooked burgers may appear to lose all pink colour meaning they may look fully cooked before they are safe to eat
- Some lean burgers may remain pink at temperatures well above the final recommended cooking temperature
So in a nutshell, if you go on looks, you could easily over or under-cook burgers!
The only way you can really be sure is to check the temperature. The good news is it’s quick and easy. For £15 you can buy a rapid response thermometer, but a dose of E. coli could be not only catastrophic for your health or even life, but at the very least, quite expensive!
My teenagers wouldn’t dream of cooking a sausage or burger without checking the temperature at the end – if it’s not 75 °C they won’t eat it, and if they can do it, so can anyone! Just make sure you disinfect the probe in some boiling water or with an anti-bacterial wipe though won’t you?