The advice to consumers from food safety experts that advise the FSA remained unchanged. Burgers should be thoroughly cooked through for two minutes to ensure a temperature of 70°C is achieved at the core of products to ensure that any bacteria present is killed off.
According to experts, this time-temperature combination ensured that dangerous bacteria present, such as E.coli and salmonella, which are a source of food poisoning that can prove very dangerous to vulnerable groups of people, received what is called a 6-log reduction in concentration (1M times less) – sufficient to make products safe to eat.
Consumer awareness campaign
The FSA’s awareness campaign comes in the wake of the growing popularity of rare burgers in high-end restaurants. It follows similar FSA campaigns in the past on the dangers of campylobacter in undercooked chicken.
Unlike the mince used to make burgers used at home or in products sold in supermarkets, rare burgers should only be made from meat that comes from specially-approved premises. These sites feature processes such as steam cleaning or lactic acid washes to kill off dangerous pathogens and prevent recontamination during subsequent handling.
On the continent, such premises are used to provide processed meat products used in steak tatare (raw mince).
Some upmarket catering establishments also use special preparation techniques – such as searing and shaving of steaks before mincing – to prepare rare burgers. This helped to ensure that any surface bacterial contamination is eradicated.
At its meeting last Wednesday (July 13) the FSA board approved proposals from the Agency’s executive, which originated from the foodservice sector itself, that changed the rules to allow restaurants to service rare burgers, provided they could demonstrate appropriate safety measures were in place.
The foodservice businesses would need to demonstrate that, regardless of ‘source controls’ in place, they also had controls in the restaurants for the preparation of burgers that delivered the same level of protection as thorough cooking (6-log reduction).
Another innovation being examined by caterers is sous vide (water bath) cooking of burger patties, which achieved a 6-log reduction in products. While burgers would still appear pink, they could be supplied to restaurants to be finished off by conventional light cooking techniques.
However, much debate took place at the board meeting about the sort of risk messaging to consumers that should accompany the serving of rare burgers in these restaurants. There was agreement that this should emphasise the special food safety measures used to reduce the risk with these burgers, and that customers should not attempt to do the same at home.
However, the FSA board’s decision was to some extent at odds with the fears raised about rare burgers reiterated by its Advisory Committee on the Microbiological Safety of Food (ACMSF) last month. ACMSF members were less confident that meat from ‘source controlled’ premises would not risk being recontaminated before consumption.
Pragmatic way forward
Despite this, board members argued that what they were proposing was the most pragmatic way forward and provided an approach to the problem of growing popularity of rare burgers, which meant existing regulatory controls were “untenable”.
In the FSA’s paper to the board, it reported on modelling work it had undertaken on the use of lactic acid and steam on carcasses, followed by subsequent lighter cooking. “Whilst the associated risk is not zero, we would consider it ‘broadly acceptable’,” it stated.
Presenting the report and recommendations to the board about adopting a more risk-based approach to regulating the serving of rare burgers in restaurants, while ensuring consumers continued to cook them fully at home, FSA director of policy Steve Wearne said: “It is a complex challenge, but we don’t believe an impossible one.”
FSA chair Heather Hancock, raised the importance of “absolute clarity” in any messaging to ensure that consumers were not confused by mixed messages. “I think we are asking too much of the consumer to differentiate,” she remarked.
FSA chief executive Catherine Brown assured board members that there would be no lessening of enforcement to ensure that safe practices were being implemented by catering outlets serving rare burgers.