As you may be aware there is considered to be a significant risk of food poisoning from consuming under-cooked burgers which have not been prepared in a way that makes them as safe as practicably possible. This is a hot topic amongst enforcement authorities and there is clear evidence that enforcement action is being taken and/or food hygiene ratings are being reduced if adequate controls are not in place.
If burgers are not going to be cooked through (i.e. to a core temperature of 70°C for two minutes), Environmental Health Officers from Westminster City Council suggest that the ‘sear and shave’ method for whole cuts of meat should be used where burgers are being made at the restaurant premises or for those restaurants that buy in pre-made burgers, then ‘challenge testing’ should be carried out. This involves adding E. coli O157 to burgers in a controlled environment, then cooking them using various different time/temperature combinations to determine which combination achieves the same reduction of the number of bacteria present as cooking them to 70°C for two minutes would.
Last year, the restaurant chain Davy’s was served a Hygiene Improvement Notice by Westminster City Council requiring it to put adequate safety controls in place for the production of undercooked burgers.
Davy’s appealed the notice and their case was heard back in May of this year. The district judge, Elizabeth Roscoe upheld one part of Davy’s appeal against the notice and stated that “the [hygiene improvement notice] was not justified in respect of Davy’s actual preparation of hamburgers to be consumed cooked rare or medium rare”.
She also noted that the mince that Davy’s used to make their burgers was, according to its producer, suitable to be eaten raw at the point of supply to Davy’s and found that Davy’s was entitled to rely on the quality of the raw mince.
The judge said that Davy’s method of preparing the burgers using minced beef supplied by Donald Russell’s in Scotland was acceptable, noting that they were a supplier of high-quality meat products and a Royal Warrant holder. The mince that they supplied was specifically prepared for Davy’s. The judge considered that mince could be assumed to be safe because it was prepared in the first procedure of the day ‘to ensure the machinery was clean’. It was then vacuum-packed and delivered chilled to Davy’s.’
A spokesperson from Westminster City Council said: ‘In our view, this aspect of the judgment ignores Food Standards Agency E. coli guidance which specifically highlights the risks with mincers and vacuum packers in dual-use applications. If the supplier is producing burgers to be eaten raw or rare, as they said in court, these should be afforded similar protections to other ready-to-eat products’.
Westminster Council may appeal the court ruling on the basis that it could put diners all over the UK at risk of contracting food poisoning. The ruling has also been questioned by the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health (CIEH) as contradicting current scientific advice and increasing the possibility of bad practice in the catering trade and UK diners eating burgers.
Whilst the appeal is not confirmed and indeed the potential outcome is unknown, it is believed that Westminster and other authorities will continue to be robust in their enforcement and, at the very least, will reduce food hygiene ratings down to a minimum of 2 should there be a lack of controls in place for the safe cooking of medium burgers.
If you are not cooking your burgers through, you should follow the advice provided by Westminster and use one of the methods they suggest to ensure a safe product.