The BHA recognises that when cooking medium/medium rare burgers in uncontrolled conditions, they may be unsafe. Unlike steak, if the inside of a burger is not cooked, it is often not safe to eat because when meat is minced, the outside surfaces are mixed up with bacteria inside and this means that bacteria, such as E. coli will be mixed all the way through the burger.
The BHA believes wholeheartedly that only safe food should be sold, in accordance with the law. “However, it is important not to dwell only on the colour of the burger, for colour is not a true indication of meat safety. There are a number of controls that businesses can use, and are using, to ensure that their burgers are safe. It would be unwise therefore to assume that all rare burgers are unsafe because this is not the case”, says Dr. Lisa Ackerley, Food Safety Expert at the BHA.
Firstly, temperature and time controls, such as measuring the temperature at the centre of the burger, will provide a microbiologically safe product that may still be pink in the centre. This is in line with guidance from the Government’s Advisory Committee on Microbiological Safety of Food.
This could mean cooking at:
- 75°C for 18 seconds or
- 70 °C for 2 minutes
- 65°C for 13.6 minutes
- 60 °C for 93 minutes
Many of the larger chains are using methods such as sous vide cooking to pasteurize the burgers first prior to final cooking on a griddle. This will produce a juicy pink burger that is safe.
Another example of control is where companies are using beef that has been treated on the outside before mincing using a number of different processes such as steam or lactic acid. Such beef may have been tested and declared E. coli free before being sent to outlets.
In September 2015, the Food Standards Agency (FSA) accepted at their Board meeting that a number of control methods might be used to achieve safer medium rare or rare burgers. Local Authorities need to be informed if companies wish to do this, and will verify the company’s validated HACCP systems to check that they are safe. This process has been carried out by a number of companies to the satisfaction of their Primary Authority or Local Authority.
Where companies do not take these steps, the local authority may take enforcement action and indeed has taken (in the case of the 6oz Burger Company in Portsmouth) to prevent the sale of potentially unsafe food.
Currently the FSA also wants businesses to display and advisory notice warning customers of the dangers of eating undercooked burgers if they are young, elderly, pregnant or otherwise vulnerable. The BHA contests this on the grounds that companies who have gone to such efforts as to ensure that their burgers are safe need not put such a notice up as it is counter-intuitive. It is not mandatory to display such a notice, and discussions are still in progress about this issue between the industry and the FSA.
 Pasteurization is a process that kills all vegetative cells to a safe level, typically a 6 log10 reduction which means if you have 10 million bacteria (107) then you end up with 10 after the time and temperature combination.
Photograph: Richard Ansett