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Hamburger and E. coli

I was on the Food Network this morning reading up on unusual hamburger recipes and I noticed that most of the instructions said to cook to desired level of doneness.

I'm from Canada, and up here, it's pretty much accepted that hamburgers are only served well-done because of E. coli. When I was in the US, however, I visited an Outback and was surprised when they asked how I'd like my burger cooked. I chose medium and had one of the best burgers of my life.

Is it common for Americans to eat burgers cooked to less than well-done? Does anyone actually know about how risky this is for E. coli (are we just being paranoid in Canada)? I would love to make some medium burgers at home without having to grind my own meat, but unless the risk is relatively low, I'm not sure I want to take the chance.

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  1. Out of all of my friends & family (I'm from the States), I only have one friend who likes her burger well-done! ("burnt-to-a-crisp", she calls it!) I think it's very common for Americans to have their burgers cooked less than well-done. I love my burgers cooked medium too, but my husband loves his mooing! (aka rare!) These days, a lot of restaurants won't serve a rare burger - other than that, they'll cook it the way you want it. It's all about cooking to the right food temperature. I think you'll be pretty safe cooking medium burgers at home with store-bought ground beef. I've been doing that at home for as long as I can remember. For extra piece of mind though, you might want to get a meat thermometer to use. Can't hurt, and it'll help you enjoy your homemade burgers that much more!

    1. Bringing the burger up to 70*C for two minutes will reduce any E. coli that might have contaminated the beef to non-pathogenic levels. It is also worthy to note that grass fed beef is FAR less likely to be contaminated with the strain of E. coli (O157:H7) that is pathogenic to humans. The practice of grain/corn feeding to bulk up the cattle lowers the pH of their digestive tract and provides an ideal place for O157 to proliferate.

      4 Replies
      1. re: LabRat

        You need to get up to 160*F (>71.1*C) in the coldest (center) place of your food in order to kill E.coli. This means if the middle of the hamburger gets to that temperature the outside will be much higher....also if at that point you remove the burger from the heat source the core will still increase in temperature so in reality you will be above 160*F. As far as I know there is no such thing as "non-pathogenic level"....if you have E.coli detectable in your product you are in trouble....that is not to say that some people with string immune systems might be able to tolerate substantial doses of E.coli without getting sick. Anyway, I occasionaly make home made burgers using whole muscle cuts that can be cooked to medium-rare level but will NEVER eat commercial burgers unless they are V.WELL done....one trip to a "production" facility making burgers "curred" me for ever....

        1. re: Pollo

          1. Not all strains of E. Coli are harmful.

          2. The med-rare burgers you make at home with whole muscle cuts can also be contaminated.

          3. Are you commenting on facilities that make pre-formed burgers, or ground meat in general? I wasn't sure.

          4. It isn't just cows that carry E. Coli. You are also a carrier. So am I and every other person on this board.

          1. re: QueenB

            See LabRat's post...we are talking about O157:H7 E.coli...
            1. No argument there....not all strains of E.coli are harmful hence we are not that concerned about these however detection of E.coli (generic) indicates unhigenic conditions....
            2. Technically yes but practically no....whole muscle cuts are generally v. "clean"....you can almost say that internal portions of the muscle are "sterile".....
            3. Both....some facilities only make ground meat.....others make ground meat + pre-form burgers....
            4. Yes....no agument that (almost) everyone carries E.coli bugs but these E.coli do not make you sick....

            1. re: Pollo

              You weren't specific to O157:H7, so I thought you meant all E. coli. Thanks for the clarification.

              Yes, the internal portions of the muscle are much cleaner than the outside, but when you grind, you are combining the outer portions of the meat with the inner portions, are you not? Which would contaminate the entire product, if the outside of the meat is contaminated by the butchering process, correct?

              Thanks also on the clarification of the pre-formed burgers vs. just ground meat. :-)

      2. Most meat-lovers on Chowhound will tell you that cooking a burger well done is tantamount to treason. I've been cooking burgers medium-rare for as long a I've been able to flip a spatula, often with ordinary grocery store beef, and have never gotten sick. Neither have any of my guests.

        1 Reply
        1. re: mojoeater

          All I can say...good for you and I hope you never get sick....but if people knew/realized what happens if you have acute renal failure......As I said before burgers are much better when done to medium well and I do that with burgers that I make....but outside...no way....

        2. if you want safer meat, get grass fed or organic beef from a small producer, one with a small processor. most e. coli in beef happens w cross-contamination when the meat from hundreds of animals is mixed in huge processing plants. 50% of feedlot cattle test positive for e-coli in the summer months, this # drops in winter.

          2 Replies
          1. re: soupkitten

            Nonsense...organic or not it makes no difference...cows can and are carriers of E.coli without beeing visibly so unless you test every single animal you are about to process you are out of luck....if you see how catle are "processed" and what cuts end up as burgers eating burgers undercooked is playing russian rulete (with an AK47...and full clip....)

            1. re: Pollo

              right. i do see cattle being processed, by small processors; i know that when you have a small number of healthy animals butchered and their meat individually ground, its much safer than getting factory meat. when the meat from 100s or 1000s of animals is mixed in a vat and ground over the same equipment in arguable sanitary conditions--that, to me, is playing russian roulette. so our advice differs-- i say trust your source, you say cook the &*^&^ out of it-- guess it depends on priorities.

          2. I'd say its extremely common for Americans to eat burgers much less than well done. Medium or medium rare is probably the most commonly requested doneness.

            You'll run the biggest risk using preground supermarket ground beef and the least risk grinding your own from a piece of steak. A nice happy balance would be go to a good butcher and have them grind up fresh meat for you. Then you can enjoy nice medium rare burgers and not dried shoe leather patties.

            1 Reply
            1. re: ESNY

              We watch for chuck roast to be on sale and then request that it be ground. Much less risk than buying ground in bulk hamburber.

            2. The norm in the US (outside of fast food burgers, which are too thin to do anything other than well-done) is medium-rare or medium. Rare is probably more common than well done! There are certain chains and restaurants that won't cook anything less done than medium, and some states actually require that, but many American burger lovers avoid those places like the plague.

              4 Replies
              1. re: Karl S

                In NC, by law burgers served at restaurants must be cooked to med. or more. I think this is also true here in SC.

                1. re: Stack8

                  Yes, and if there's ever been a law that makes me want to join a militia, write a manifesto, try to grow a beard, and begin to advocate violence...that's the one. IT KILLS me. You can eat all the raw oysters you want in the Carolinas...a much greater risk if you ask me.

                  I personnally called DHEC to bitch about that back in the early 90's when the laws were passed as a knee-jerk, barn-door-slamming reaction to the Jack in the box tragedy. SC is near the top (bottom, however you look at ) of statistics on obesity, heart disease, highway deaths, you name it...yet the freaking nanny-state wants to tell me how to eat BURGERS!!! (see I'm getting shrill already)

                  I do not eat burgers cooked more than medium rare. They taste like dirt. Why does McDonalds put all that ketchup and mustard on a burger? To give it taste, because all the taste has been cooked out of it.

                  Is there a risk? Yeah, sure. I eat raw cookie dough too. And over easy eggs. I think the risk is exceedingly small, and far below my worry threshhold.

                  1. re: danna

                    I like raw cookie dough too. Your right the gov. telling us how to cook our hamburgers. What's next? Rome is burning !

                  2. re: Stack8

                    I've been told it is "law" but have not been able to find a law or statute for North Carolina stating such. Could this "law" simply be restaurant policy, as a form of risk management, hiding behind the word "law"?

                2. I like all the beef I eat to be cooked to a nice medium rare temperature.

                  Funny thing when I was a kid, 25-30 years ago, when my dad was forming the ground beef into burger patties, we would always sample a couple of small rolled up balls of ground beef flavored with garlic powder, and some salt. Nowdays I would never risk it, but we never got ill back in the day.

                  1. The local Wegman's here sells irradiated beef.

                    Short of grinding it yourself, that seems to be a safe way to cook a burger to medium rare without endangering yourself from E coli.

                    I'll let everyone decide for themselves about their level of comfort with irradiating foods. I'm OK with it, I'm sure others aren't.

                    1. I respectfully clarify vorpal's original posting. Vorpal and I live in the same city in Canada, and while vorpal is correct about the tendency, it's an overstatement to say that "it's pretty much accepted that hamburgers are only served well done" - in fact, that has been the subject of a lively CH exchange. It depends where you go in the city. My local pub always asks how it's desired, and serves it up that way. For my money: medium when I'm out, medium rare when I ground my own.

                      3 Replies
                      1. re: hungry_pangolin

                        Thanks for the clarification! I've never been asked how I want my burger, so I may have assumed erroneously. What's your local pub, if you don't mind me asking?

                        1. re: vorpal

                          House on Parliament. Jeez... it *is* time for lunch!

                          You're not wrong, though. Some places make the decision for you.

                          1. re: hungry_pangolin

                            I pass by this place so many times a week on the streetcar. I have no excuses for not checking it out, especially after hearing quite a few good things about it! I think I'll try to pop in this weekend for a medium burger fix.

                            Thanks for the heads up!

                      2. If you are really worried then don't eat your hamburger less than well done. Grinding your own meat will decrease your risk. E. Coli is most often found on the surface of meat so if you grind your own you can control the exposure. If you want to take every precaution then you could take a roast, blanch it in boiling water for a couple of min then grind it. The few millimeters of surface cooked meat will blend into the raw and not be noticed when you grind in your clean grinder and you will have reduced your exposure to E. Coli and can enjoy the ground meat anyway you like. I grind my own meat not only to improve the safety factor but it taste better when I can choice the cut of meat and fat content to suit my needs.

                        1. jfood is not endorcingthe following but it appeared on a thread a little while ago. buy a whole piece of beef. throw in boiling water for a minute or two and then grind. the boiling water will kill any e-coli on the outside so you have a "clean" piece for the grinder.

                          1. Cattle don't "carry" coliform bacteria. E. Coli is not a disease, it's a bug that naturally occurs in the colon. Hence the name. But colonic contents are not generally considered to be good food. The intestinal tracts of healthy cattle (ie, those not subjected to a CAFO environment) may have fewer pathogenenic E. Coli, but the fact is that they're still full of, well, you know.

                            The way that E. Coli gets into your burger is that fecal matter comes into contact with the meat. Presumably, in any well-run operation, the amount of fecal matter will be minimal. And if you are dealing with whole muscle cuts, there isn't much opportunity for a bacterial colony to flourish. (If you want to be really careful, yes, you can sanitize the surface of your chuck roast before you grind it.)

                            But even if you don't sanitize a muscle cut before grinding, the resulting hamburger is going to be pretty "clean." The real problem comes when small levels of E. Coli get disbursed througout a bunch of hamburger, and the meat is then allowed to reach temperatures that permit bacterial growth. Now you've got the little buggers in the middle of what is going to become your burger, with a great food source and tons of surface area to breed on.

                            Same idea with raw eggs; the chance of salmonella being present in a single egg is about 1:10,000. But if you have a commercial vat of 100,000 eggs scrambled together, odds are good that salmonella is present. And if you let those eggs come up to room temperature, the salmonella will make lots of little baby salmonella that can end up in your omlette.

                            I'll cheerfully eat a medium-rare burger or raw-egg mayonnaise when I know that the ingredients have been handled properly throughout their trip to the plate. But when the source isn't known or isn't trustworty, caution flags go up.

                            There is a risk that anything we eat might make us sick. (Spinach salad, anyone?) If you're very young, very old, or immunocompromised, you evaluate those risks differently than someone who sees the typical worst-case scenario as a few quality hours with a good book in the room with all the tile. But we all have to make our own choices about what risks we're going to take.

                            3 Replies
                            1. re: alanbarnes

                              As far as I know, every mammal has e-coli in their gastrointestinal tract. Well, except for newborns, but they very soon develop it. It's what allows us to digest our food. But just because (generic) you and I have the same type of e-coli doesn't mean that if either one of us gets even a small dose of the others, we won't get very very sick!

                              Most meat contamination occurs in the meat packing house when a carcas is dropped, or a cut of meat is returned to a tray after being dropped on the floor. It's actually a rare occurence that the e-coli gets into commercially butchered meats, but when it does it can make a whole lot of people sick. AND get a whole lot of publicity.

                              Because true "hamburger" is traditionally made from the trimmings of a variety of different cuts of meat, including the tenderloin and other prime cuts, besides being the best tasting of all of the ground meats, it also, by definition, has the greatest chance of being contaminated. I guess the moral here is to know your packing house AND know your butcher, but in todays world it's more likely you have a pet flying pig.

                              Eating raw beef is a long tradition in both Europe and the U.S. I'm not talking about rare. I'm talking about raw. Steak Tartar is one of the several classics that pops to mind. Personally, I despise well done hamburger, and cannot for the life of me understand why fast food restaurants teach their cooks to press down on a hamburger patty while cooking. It must makes the finished "hamburger" turn into bun, condiments, garnishes and dry hard hamburger crumbles with the first bite! Yuck!

                              Most places around here are getting better about cooking a burger rare when asked. They protect themselves with a disclaimer in the menu that eating raw or undercooked meats and seafood may be detrimental to your health and carry food borne illnesses. Soooo? I just can't wrap my mind around a well done Kobe burger, no matter how hard I try.

                              1. re: Caroline1

                                On my first trip to Europe, in 1969, I ate steak tartare and got really really sick. I still tell the story of me in the little left bank hotel and the trips all night to the toilet (down the hall in those days) and the not-soft toilet paper they used then. Not a happy night.

                                1. re: johnb

                                  I got food poisoning in Europe too. But mine was cooked. Cold dilled salmon for lunch on KLM, probably somewhere over Austria or Hungary. It took at least a decade before I could handle any sort of salmon again. Mine caused worship at the porcelain god. But I did learn quickly to carry a ton of Kleenex with me. A woman's handbag will hold a better array of handy improvisation than a man's wallet!

                            2. I would often order my burgers medium- until I went to lunch with a friend from Canada. She gasped in horror at my request and proceeded to describe huge stadium sized vats of ground up cattle that may or may not have been diseased and may or may not have contaminated all the other meat and blah, blah, blah it was heart wrenching. (Though I realize she meant well... I guess.....)

                              No, I didn't enjoy my burger and yes, it was the last medium order I ever had. But I still get my steak med-rare & you can't take that away from me!! :o)

                              1 Reply
                              1. re: Boccone Dolce

                                You need never to eat out with that friend again; no one at a table ever comments negatively about what anyone else at the table orders or eats. Unless you are a child so young not to have been taught that. Wow. That friend simply doesn't know how to behave at a table, though I realize she's far from alone.

                              2. It is not "generally accepted" that hamburgers are only served well done here in Canada. And it is NOT legally required that hamburgers be served well done in Toronto restaurants. Despite numerous, spurious, claims to the contrary, rare burgers are quite legal. Any restaurant can cook any burger to your desired level of doneness. I'll send my well done burger back and ask for one that is still edible.

                                (And it is eminently easy to contaminate a well done burger between cooking it and serving it.)

                                2 Replies
                                1. re: embee

                                  I had no idea that this was the case... thank you for clarifying this! I still assert that it is generally believed that burgers are cooked to well-done here; no one I know was aware that it was possible to request a less-than-well burger in restaurants, and virtually everyone I know has some degree of paranoia about serving ground beef that's remotely pink. I'm glad that this is wrong, though... and I did go to House on Parliament (as per hungry_pangolin's comments up above) for lunch today and requested a medium burger, which was quite good. Next time, I think I'll try medium rare. This is great news for me!

                                  I'm still, however, curious, as to how dangerous the practice of eating less cooked ground beef is, both when grinding your own and doing so with preground beef.

                                  1. re: vorpal

                                    If the meat has been handled properly from the time of slaughter to the time of serving, the danger - though real - is very small. If the meat was mishandled, or handled by a carrier, the danger is much greater. Contamination can happen at any time and place Your own hands could be the source.

                                2. Always ate my hamburgers medium rare or rare. Then just about 10 years ago caught the e-coli bug. 180 lbs down to 137 lbs in 2 months and over 30 grand in hospital bills.
                                  Of course failed kidneys grew that bill for months after.
                                  Risk it but believe me it only takes one bad burger to completely change your life.
                                  Just FYI.

                                  1. For my entire life I have been eating hamburgers cooked medium rare to rare. Not only that but I have been eating raw hamburger periodically as long as I can remember, as have my mother and grandmother. While I DO NOT recommend this for others, I have long wondered if doing so has given me some level of immunity to e coli, as I have never gotten sick. I do realize that I could have just been lucky. I found the following article interesting on the possible placental transmission of antibodies, and now I wonder if it is because my mom also ate raw hamburger that I have been so lucky.


                                    3 Replies
                                    1. re: KaimukiMan

                                      While there is a very slim possibility of passive immunity I would say that in general your good fortune may have more to do with the quality of meat you and your family have used. Go to the grocery and buy the processed ground meat in a tube to make your burgers and eat them rare. Your risk will increase astronomically

                                      1. re: scubadoo97

                                        It has always been lean ground beef from the supermarket, nothing special. (and now I eat it from costco.)

                                        1. re: KaimukiMan

                                          OK maybe passive immunity is not so far fetched :)

                                    2. Got a funny little story while I was on vacation in Utah some years ago. We stopped for lunch in some little town and I ordered a rare berger. the waitress returned to tell me i was not allowed to order it that way, only well done!! Forget that I told her. I checked the menu again and ordered a chicken sandwich. The chicken came out and was basically raw in the middle. I could not get a berger the way I requested, but could get almost raw chicken. I went with the soup.

                                      1. I eat my burgers cooked rare to medium rare, anything cooked longer than that is inedible to me.

                                        3 Replies
                                        1. re: swsidejim

                                          Then use care, grind your own, and make sure they're from business you trust to grind their own beef if you're ordering them away from home.

                                          I think most people just assume that a few days of intestinal discomfort is all they'll have to deal with. Trust me boys and girls, that only happens if you are LUCKY. If you're not lucky, you'll be facing possible kidney failure, dialysis, amazing medical bills, and a sh*tload of lost vacation and sick time.

                                          All I'm asking is that you make sure that burger is worth it. Make sure it's a good burger. It'd suck to lose so much just a mediocre burger from 'Joe's Place'.

                                          1. re: sebetti

                                            Life is full of risks, I just cant stomach brown, dried out burgers. with that said, luckily I dont eat many burgers when I am out(maybe 6-7 a year, I tend to prefer a rare steak), and when I do cook a burger at home I get my ground chuck from a butcher that grinds the meat in front of me, to order.

                                            1. re: sebetti

                                              Why I grind mine at home and don't usually order a burger out. Not so much due to the risk but the texture is never like I make at home, rare, medium or well done. High end or burger joint the meat usually sucks compared to what I make at home.

                                          2. I'm a bit of a schizo on this issue. I like my steaks blue rare, but I love a good char on my burgers. You can't get that with the thin patties served in most burger joints without the meat being well done. Now, if you go to Allen's, or some other place that offers 6-8 oz burgers, they are thick enough that you can get a decent char and still have it medium/medium-rare in the centre.

                                            1. And, completely apropos to this thread, 28 people in North Bay, Ontario are in hospital with E. Coli infections contracted from undercooked burgers at a local Harvey's (a Canadian burger chain), and a further 141 cases are under investigation. We can be happy that no one has died yet from their illness, and the restaurant has been closed (temporarily). No description of how the contamination affected the meat, or whether there was problems with the preparation, other than an unattributed statement that the meat was undercooked. Harvey's uses prefab frozen burgers, not fresh meat.

                                              2 Replies
                                              1. re: KevinB

                                                Last I heard they did not know whether the outbreak was from the meat or something else.

                                                Do you have a link to a story that shows it was the hamburgers?