almost 20 years, I have heard people from the meat industry say “if
consumers would only cook their burgers, the E. coli problem would go
away”. Here are 10 reasons why the “just cook it” approach will not work:
E. coli O157:H7
is a unique pathogen. The levels of this organism necessary to cause
infection are very low.
The severity of the disease E.
coli O157:H7 can cause, especially in children is
In many cases, parents order hamburgers
for their children and rely on restaurants to cook them properly. In restaurants, parents really have no
control over whether the hamburgers they order are sufficiently cooked to
eliminate possible contamination from E. coli O157:H7.
unknowingly bring this pathogen into their kitchens, it is almost
impossible to avoid cross contamination. Even the smallest amount of
contamination on a food that is not cooked can cause illness. Many of the
reported cases of E. coli O157:H7 have involved
ground beef that was clearly cooked at times and temperatures sufficient
to inactivate E. coli O157:H7. Some other vector, i.e. cross
contamination was probably involved.
Even if consumers
attempt to use thermometers to measure cooking temperature, it is
difficult to properly measure the internal temperature of hamburger
patties. They would have to use an accurate thermometer and place the
probe exactly into the center of the patty. In addition, the inactivation
of E. coli O157:H7 is dependent on cooking time and
temperature. For example, if they cook to 155 degrees F, they should hold
that temperature for 16 seconds. It is not realistic to expect that
consumers, many of which are children will scientifically measure the
internal temperature of hamburgers.
The way ground beef
is packaged, it is virtually impossible to remove it from packages or
chubs and make patties without spreading contamination if it is present.
beef appears to be cooked when it really isn’t. There is a phenomenon
called “premature browning” that can make ground beef appear to be fully
cooked when in fact it is undercooked.
E. coli O157:H7
may be present in beef products other than ground beef. For example, in
non-intact beef products, including tenderized steaks that are not always
cooked to temperatures required for inactivation.
There have been
many cases and outbreaks of E. coli O157:H7 associated with
foods that are not cooked (i.e. fresh cut produce).
As Senator Patrick
Leahy said after the 1993 Jack-in-the-Box outbreak – “The death penalty
is too strong a punishment for undercooking a hamburger”. He was right –consumers will make
mistakes. There needs to be a margin of safety so that undercooking does
not result in disease or death.
these and many other reasons, the problem of E. coli O157:H7
in ground beef and other food products must be solved. Of course proper cooking is important.
However, telling consumers to “just cook it” is not the answer.