Wednesday, 2 January 2013

Could Rarely-Cooked Burgers Be Banned?

There was a bit of a debate at the end of last year about restaurants serving beef burgers cooked rare. Both The Evening Standard and The Independent reported on this: that although Westminster Council had denied that they were 'banning' rare burgers, they were still taking the selling of them 'seriously'. So what's wrong with a burger that's still pink and bloody in the middle? It can't harm you, can it? Well, the reason for all the fuss, is that, actually, it can.

First off, you can eat rare steak. This is because the steak comes as one piece of meat, sliced off a larger piece. When it's seared in a pan or grilled, the outside surfaces of the meat are all (even very lightly) cooked. This gets rids of any bacteria lingering on the outside of the meat. When you cut it and it's rare and bloody, this meat inside hasn't even seen air, so there's no bacteria in there and it's safe to eat. (Obviously chicken and pork are different, so that's why even pork steaks need to be cooked all the way through). 

With minced beef, though, it's an entirely different story. Minced beef, because it is chopped up into little pieces, has a much larger surface area. This means that bacteria can be present in the mince even if it's been pushed into the middle of the burger. The remarks in the Standard article about 'well, if it was fresh meat, it would be ok' don't really figure here, as fresh meat can still contain germs and bacteria if it's been contaminated with other sections of the meat, or chopping boards/utensils. This is why the current advice is to eat minced beef cooked all the way through, unlike with steaks and roasting joints.

classic beef burger

But, I wondered, was it right to get all heavy-handed and talk about banning - or at least actively discouraging restaurants from selling - rare burgers completely? As consumers, we like to think that we have a choice. I've worked enough years waiting on tables to know that even the simplest dish of ham, egg and chips can be ordered to the most precise requirements. (One I distinctly remember: 'Egg cooked through but still runny (?), chips crisp please, and can the ham not be touching anything else on the plate?'). And, they are the customer after all, so, most of the time, if it's possible, what they want, they get. 

But the second that they eat a less than super-fresh oyster or a rare burger dished up with a side of gastro-enteritis, people look for someone else to blame. They sue the restaurant, or council, for compensation. The restaurants can even get shut down. Rather than preventing the sale of rare burgers, I think that a better idea is to educate customers instead. A disclaimer, maybe, that protects the customer so they know the risks, and also the restaurant, so that action can't be taken against them later on. 

Food hygiene is, generally, really good in restaurants nowadays, so even if you do eat a rare burger you're not definitely going to get ill - but there is an increased risk. Far better to let punters know these risks and let them come to their own decision, rather than banning rare burgers completely. But that's just my opinion. 

What do you think? Should they ban - or actively discourage - the sale of rare burgers? Or do you eat burgers rare and can't see what all the fuss is about? Let me know in the comments below...

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