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Medium rare, please
February 8, 2012 4:12 PM   Subscribe

If you were to buy frozen ground beef from a local, grass-fed source, would you feel safe cooking & eating a medium rare hamburger? If not, under what circumstances (if any) would you eat a hamburger cooked medium rare?
posted by skjønn to Food & Drink (65 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
 
Asking because I only ever eat hamburger that has been cooked to 160, even though I much prefer medium rare hamburgers. Wondering if I am being a little too paranoid?
posted by skjønn at 4:13 PM on February 8, 2012


I eat my burgers medium rare... always. At a restaurant, at home.
posted by alaijmw at 4:13 PM on February 8, 2012 [7 favorites]


I would (and do) eat hamburgers cooked medium rare regularly, both from restaurants, and made by me from the regular old ground beef from the supermarket.
posted by brainmouse at 4:14 PM on February 8, 2012


Ditto---always get medium rare, pretty much regardless of the source, and never had a problem. Hell, local and grass-fed? If it were steak I'd make tartare.
posted by stellaluna at 4:19 PM on February 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


I know at least one doctor who says that eating hamburger less than well done is among the best ways to get food poisoning. Of course people do it all the time and often suffer no ill effects, so.

That said, I think the reason behind that is the slaughter and grinding process, which essentially get e. coli all over the place in the high-speed, high-volume industrial facilities. So, purely in health terms, I would be more concerned with where and how your beef was slaughtered and processed than with whether it was grown locally and grass fed. (Of course I'm sure grass fed is more delicious.) Do you have access to anyone from the local source who can tell you that information?
posted by rkent at 4:21 PM on February 8, 2012 [4 favorites]


I'd eat it. I also make Armenian style steak tartar at home, although I wouldn't use pre-ground beef to do it. The safest thing you can do is to grind the meat at home. Pre-ground beef is more dangerous because it often contains meat from several different animals or cuts, so if one is contaminated they all are. There's also the chance the grinding machinery will be contaminated and mix in something bad. If you buy a steak and grind it your only source of external contamination (assuming your grinder is clean etc) is the surface of that one piece of meat.
posted by crabintheocean at 4:21 PM on February 8, 2012 [10 favorites]


I would feel safe doing this (to me the major worry with ground beef is prion diseases, and cooking temperatures don't affect those).

If you're seriously worried, I hear that best-practices suggest buying a single cut of beef and grinding it at home -- that way you know you've got ground beef from exactly one animal, and you know exactly what's happened to it since it was ground.
posted by vorfeed at 4:22 PM on February 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


Another voice for medium rare burgers regardless of the source. Life is too short to eat crappy overcooked burgers.

If you want to be more careful, you can consider searing a steak, cutting off the seared part, then grinding your own hamburger from the resultant meat. The majority of food contamination is on the exterior of the meat, so this has the effect of minimizing anything in the end grind.
posted by saeculorum at 4:22 PM on February 8, 2012


Yeah, the best approach to avoiding contamination is to grind the meat yourself at home. Cut off the surfaces first if you want to be extra careful.
posted by mr_roboto at 4:23 PM on February 8, 2012 [4 favorites]


I order rare hamburgers everywhere. They usually make it out to me medium rare. I've never considered not doing it, but then again I'll eat raw ground beef while making meatballs and meatloaf so I may not be the best judge in such matters.
posted by crankylex at 4:26 PM on February 8, 2012 [3 favorites]


I am also on Team "They Come Another Way?" Here in Massachusetts, restaurants have to put a little splotch on the menu warning you that if you get your hamburger or your salmon or whatever medium-rare you are at risk of food poisoning.

Also a lover of khema and cig kofta and other raw-meat dishes. The only thing I ever got food poisoning from was scallions.
posted by Sidhedevil at 4:29 PM on February 8, 2012


Last week I read that "researchers from Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana, found that beef products from conventionally raised and grass-fed animals were equally likely to be contaminated by antibiotic-resistant Escherichia coli."

That said, I buy grass-fed locally-raised ground beef and I will eat it medium rare. I have never had food poisoning. Maybe if I'd ever experienced it I'd be more careful. It's my understanding that unless you're a young kid or an older person or have a weak immune system, E. coli is unpleasant but isn't that dangerous.
posted by needs more cowbell at 4:40 PM on February 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


Whoops, my linked text was supposed to go to http://news.sciencemag.org/sciencenow/2012/01/organic-meat-not-free-of-drug-re.html?rss=1
posted by needs more cowbell at 4:41 PM on February 8, 2012


Agreed with ...well, everyone: I am young and healthy and so I eat medium-rare everywhere, and steak tartare as often as I can get it. With pastured beef I wouldn't give it so much as a eye-blink's worth of thought. Go for it.
posted by fiercecupcake at 4:41 PM on February 8, 2012


Yeah, I eat rare and even raw ground meat all the time, and honestly I just don't worry about it. Maybe I'll regret that someday, but so far there have been no issues.
posted by Forktine at 4:50 PM on February 8, 2012


The "local grass-fed" etc. is nice on the environmental scale, but has little do with why ground beef is going to make you ill. It's the bacterial count. Warning: This may give you the willies, but don't worry: all food is chock full of bacteria that will/won't kill you.

So here goes: fresh beef sits at around 10^3 colonies/g. This is actually very low and is handled by your body quite well, mostly by stomach acid. Remember, the bacteria have to be 1. Pathogenic, 2. Not defeated by stomach acid, and 3. your immune system can't kick its ass in time to stop you from being sick.

Consider your typical hunk of beef. It will start growing bacteria all over the outer layer as soon as it is removed from the cow. If the hunk is removed properly, maintained in the correct conditions you get aged beef: cut off the outer layer and you have super-tasty and extremely overpriced steaks at your local 4-star steakhouse. For other meat, it is usually transported quickly to the butchering facilities such as a local butcher, grocer or done on site at the slaughterhouse. As long as the meat is a hunk, the bacteria stay on the outside and the outside gets cooked the most anyhow, so no one is worried about that prime rib cooked to 120F on the inside. The bacteria on a prime rib are on the outside that gets cooked to crispy (if you are doing it right) and there are much fewer inside where they get no oxygen.

Ground beef ruins this whole aging process in one fell swoop: the bacteria on the surface would have stayed on the surface, but oh no, you had to grind it up and put the bacteria all over the damn place. Once ground, the bacteria go into overdrive as the surface area has increased dramatically. But here's the thing, even with the bacteria, you probably won't get sick. Some numbers from my old food micro class:

In colonies/g of meat:
10^3: Fresh beef. Quite fresh and tasty.
10^4: Still fresh and tasty.
10^5: Fresh-ish. Probably no detection in quality difference. We tested grocery store beef that was a day old to be here.
10^6: This is the first turning point. 3 magnitudes past actual fresh and you start to notice the difference. The beef doesn't smell quite as fresh, and the color starts to turn here. The color turning is due to oxidation of the myoglobin in the beef, not bacteria (not to be confused with vacuum-sealed color change). But the color change tends to happen around this level of bacteria. Correlation but not cause. This also happens to be the cut-off for me of where I will eat the burger medium rare and not use this as a burger. This beef would be used for taco meat where I'm going to brown it completely and then slow-cook it in spices.
10^7. Color definitely turning, no longer a fresh smell. Fun Fact! 50,000,000 (5x10^7) colonies/g is the cutoff for being sold for human consumption. Yummy! Undercooked beef at this stage could make you sick.
10^8: Oh hells no. This is inviting food poisoning. The meat is definitely turned color, not much red showing up, mostly brown. If you don't vomit from this stuff, you will have issues at the other end.
10^9: You won't get food poisoning from this bacteria level. Why? Because you couldn't choke it down in the first place. 10^9 colonies/g and above is to the point where the meat has gone rancid and stinks to all hell. You couldn't eat it if you tried. If you did, well then you got food poisoning. Should have listened to your nose.

Knowing all of this: I eat rare burgers all of the time. Decent restaurants turn and burn their ground beef quickly, not to mention one food poisoning scare and they are in a PR nightmare. I'd be more wary of restaurants that aren't confident in selling a medium rare burger. I make my own burgers rare, but only from fresh ground beef regardless of source. If the beef starts to turn color I won't use it for a burger, and use it in a dish where it gets cooked through.
posted by Mister Fabulous at 4:52 PM on February 8, 2012 [172 favorites]


After all the bacteriology, virology, infectious diseases I took (a whole bachelor's degree's worth) the ONLY thing I have changed about my behavior is that I never NEVER NEVER eat ground anything less than well done.
posted by magnetsphere at 4:53 PM on February 8, 2012 [3 favorites]


We, too, buy local grass-fed beef (ground round). And, we sear it medium-rare.

Simply driving to buy the meat is a much bigger gamble.
posted by artdrectr at 4:55 PM on February 8, 2012


This has been obliquely addressed but not directly stated, so: the reason (in my understanding, someone correct me if I am wrong) that you can eat a rare steak, for example, but not burgers, is because there is no bacteria on the inside of a solid piece of meat, so you only have to worry about cooking the very outer layer. Ground beef has all that outer bacteria, well, ground up in it. So you have to cook it thoroughly, or risk infection.

That said... in my layman's opinion the risk is probably overstated in general and ought to be at least somewhat lesser in well-raised beef, but any ground beef that you aren't grinding yourself after removing the contaminated outer layer is potentially suspect.
posted by dixiecupdrinking at 4:55 PM on February 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


You're being weird/paranoid. Normal people eat medium rare hamburgers all the time, everywhere.
posted by Perplexity at 4:55 PM on February 8, 2012


The best thing you can do to help safety (and taste) is to grind your own, and check to make sure that restaurants you patronize do the same.
posted by supercres at 4:56 PM on February 8, 2012


(^^ okay so Mister Fabulous, appropriately named, directly stated this while I was typing.)
posted by dixiecupdrinking at 4:57 PM on February 8, 2012


I always eat mine medium rare, if not rare.

Then again, I just asked this question. Maybe it's mad cow!
posted by Sara C. at 4:59 PM on February 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


Also: I never buy the pre-packaged ground beef or the tubes of ground beef. I remember seeing both at Wal-Mart a lot. You can tell it's pre-packaged by the perfectly square shape and the heat sealed packaging. You have no way of knowing how long that's been on the shelf. This stuff also has a higher likelihood of containing the "ammonia-treated scraps" as well as having been injected with a nitrate/nitrite solution to keep its color. Stay away. Get the beef that has obviously been packed by hand.
posted by Mister Fabulous at 5:01 PM on February 8, 2012 [2 favorites]


I waited tables in a state where it was against the law to serve hamburgers below medium-well, so I got used to them that way. I love a rare steak, but rare burgers are just nasty to me.

Local, humanely-raised ground beef would seem safer to me, but I'd still want to cook it all the way through for taste reasons.
posted by Metroid Baby at 5:23 PM on February 8, 2012


If not, under what circumstances (if any) would you eat a hamburger cooked medium rare?

I'd eat a hamburger medium rare under almost any circumstance.
posted by Justinian at 5:52 PM on February 8, 2012 [4 favorites]


This stuff also has a higher likelihood of containing the "ammonia-treated scraps" as well as having been injected with a nitrate/nitrite solution to keep its color. Stay away. Get the beef that has obviously been packed by hand.
posted by Mister Fabulous at 6:01 PM on February 8 [+] [!]

Nitrates/nitrites and other additives are not allowed in ground beef in the United States.
posted by catseatcheese at 5:54 PM on February 8, 2012 [3 favorites]


The only circumstance I would eat ground beef, whatever the source, anything less than medium well, is if I'd seen it ground up after having the surfaces dealt with (cut off, whatever) first. And even then, probably not. Grass fed or not, what matters is the bacteria.
posted by SMPA at 6:03 PM on February 8, 2012


When I buy local ground beef, which is as often as I can, I never EVER cook it past medium---and that's if we have guests. Medium rare for me.

However, we also buy ground beef from a high quality local chain store, who I absolutely know grinds meat fresh EVERY DAY because I used to work there, and who will, without any questions at all, grind anything from service meat or the racks or the cooler in the back for you, free of cost, any time you ask. (That was a lot of commas, I'm sorry.)

Wouldn't cook walmart or discount chain ground meat...at all. Like, wouldn't and don't buy it.

There are two types of stores I know grind fresh daily, and those are Giant Eagle and Whole Foods. I'm fairly certain Publix does too but I'm not sure. And, just because it made me sad, I noticed our newest Kroger stocking pre-wrapped boxes the other day so I won't be buying that any more.
posted by TomMelee at 6:37 PM on February 8, 2012


I am very susceptible to food poisoning and have never gotten food poisoning from a medium-rare hamburger anywhere. And I am not just eating those medium-rare hamburgers in fancypants joints, either.

Also will eat khema (the raw Armenian beef or lamb) or cig kofta (same thing Turkish style) pretty much anywhere. Carpaccio not so much unless it's a restaurant I really trust.

Of course one person's anecdata is worth nothing but I felt left out because everyone was sharing theirs.
posted by Sidhedevil at 6:58 PM on February 8, 2012


I eat rare and medium-rare if grass-fed and local. I really have no concerns about that because of the small-scale processing and raising.

Since e.coli is pretty rampant in commercial burger, and hamburger you order out is not likely to be top quality, I avoid eating medium rare or rare beef in restaurants or from the grocery store. I've worked in restaurants and been working on food industry issues for the last few years -- I know too much.
posted by Miko at 7:04 PM on February 8, 2012


It can be as local and grass-fed and organic as you want. Doesn't matter if the grinder was dirty.

I would eat a medium-rare hamburger only if I had just ground the meat myself. And while I'll admit I haven't done this, grinding your own hamburger is not some obscure science. Buy a local grass-fed chuck roast, cut into cubes, grind in cheap grinder.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 7:11 PM on February 8, 2012


I would never eat a medium-rare burger, because grinding the meat is what mixes all the ick into it, like Mr. Fabulous said.

Medium-rare ground beef fails my personal risk/benefit analysis. The joys of a medium-rare burger are, in my opinion, not nearly joyful enough to risk 48 hours of vomiting and explosive diarrhea.

Lots of people do, and survive, and that's fine. Lots of people drive without seat belts and survive, too. It's a statistical risk I'm not personally willing to take.

Medium-rare steak, though: sign me up for that!
posted by ErikaB at 7:12 PM on February 8, 2012


I cook my steaks blue rare, and order that way as often as a restaurant allows. I order my burgers rare, though they almost never come out that way.

Life is too short to worry about puking my guts out. Worth it for a good burger.

Anecdotally, I have only ever gotten food poisoning once in my years of ordering rare beef. And it was from chicken that I undercooked all by myself.
posted by InsanePenguin at 7:26 PM on February 8, 2012 [2 favorites]


The aspect of industrial grinding that results in more beef that's hazardous is that many, many animals are combined and mixed in the processing. One package of ground beef in 1998 contained parts from up to 55 cows - and that was more than 10 years ago, and I doubt the number has improved since then in a rapidly scaling-up system.

So that's why grinding it yourself makes a difference. If meat from 55 cows can go into 550 pounds of ground beef, that makes a lot of 5- and 10-lb restaurant packages of beef out there going into a lot of separate hamburgers. If even one cow of that 55 was contaminated, all the beef from all 55 cows is now contaminated. The risk is now spread across a much larger population.

If you grind it yourself, you've got meat from one cow only and you've tracked it from the time you bought it to the time you've cooked it, so you can minimize the risk of contamination during preparation (another big problem in restaurants, often because it's the produce that's contaminated - lettuces, etc - and because a few individuals handle all the food, and because there's economic pressure not to waste stuff even if it maybe fell on the floor a little bit or smells a tiny bit off). That doesn't guarantee your one cow is the safest but it does reduce your risk.

Finally, the important aspect of beef quality is not organic, grass-fed, or any of that - it's the smaller-scale local processing that was noted above. It's much, much likelier to be cleaner. Small-scale regional slaughterhouses don't have feedlot operations which are huge vectors for contamination, and animals don't spend much time there at all before they're slaughtered. That's what makes the difference between local beef and industrial.

Anecdata is just what it is. We do risky things all the time that we feel confident about, like drive. The risk of dying from e.coli poisoning from beef is small spread across a large population. But it's not nonexistent. There is data, even though the meat industry really does not like to run tests, have people run tests, trace individual animals or in general admit problems, which makes it very hard to run controlled studies. Still, in 2011, a CDC sampling group called FoodNet which monitors 15 states revealed "442 people in the sample area that had fallen ill from E. coli O157:H7, the most common strain of the bacteria. Of those cases, 184 were hospitalized and 2 died."

You may like your chances; 2 dead in one year in 15 of the 50 states isn't many. But it's also nothing to pooh-pooh, especially because the risk isn't disappearing and our food processing methods aren't getting cleaner or more honest out of the goodness of the four major meatpacking companies' hearts.
posted by Miko at 7:27 PM on February 8, 2012 [8 favorites]


It isn't the source of the beef that's the problem as much as it is the facility doing the grinding. If the grinder isn't super pristine clean, as well as the worker's hands, as well as his apron and everything else the meat touches before and after grinding, you are just as likely to pick up something. I vote no.

E.coli is by definition a cross-contamination food borne illness. The meat starts out good, and touches something along the way that coats it in poop. Doesn't have to be that same cow's poop. It could be a nicked intestine that leaks it out, or it could be, like in the case of vegetables with e.coli contamination, workers with poop hands.

It really doesn't matter whether the ground beef comes from one cow or many, it depends on whether there is contamination or not.
posted by gjc at 7:36 PM on February 8, 2012


Grass-fed does make somewhat of a difference in food safety. Normally, a cow's rumen is relatively neutral-pH, which does not select for acid-resistant e. coli. But when fed a diet of corn and soy, the pH drops (becoming more acidic). This creates a situation where acid-resistance is selected for. These acid-resistant bacteria are more likely to survive your stomach acid and make you ill, should you wind up eating them.

In fact, about half of the antacids produced in this country are given to grain-fed cattle, because if their heartburn gets too bad they will eat less.
posted by Earl the Polliwog at 7:39 PM on February 8, 2012 [4 favorites]


It really doesn't matter whether the ground beef comes from one cow or many, it depends on whether there is contamination or not.

True that there has to be contamination or nobody gets sick. But I think the question is about risk management. Since the question was about restaurant burgers vs. homemade burgers, my point is that if we assume a certain number of cows end up with their meat contaminated somehow during slaughter and processing, the chances that with the industrial mixing you'll get one of many many hundreds of burgers that contain some contaminated meat are higher than the chances that if you purchase meat from a single animal source or a single cut, you'll end up with material that has been contaminated.

The chances of any one burger, then, being contaminated are higher in restaurants, lower with meat purchased from a small-scale processor, ground, and cooked at home.

And since we know that contamination isn't actually randomly distributed, but that industrial production conditions and restaurant preparation conditions are in themselves risk factors, risk eating out is just higher than risk purchasing from a single animal source, grinding and prepping at home.
posted by Miko at 8:26 PM on February 8, 2012


Statistically you are more likely to get food poisoning from the lettuce on your burger then from an undercooked burger.
posted by JPD at 10:31 PM on February 8, 2012 [2 favorites]


That's a good point; most e. coli outbreaks occur from produce.
posted by Justinian at 11:40 PM on February 8, 2012


It's never crossed my mind to be wary of consuming medium rare beef and it is my preferred preparation for burgers as well as steaks. I usually only eat hamburgers in "nice" restaurants (not necessarily expensive, just joints where they're known for their burgers) because I tend to overcook it if I make it at home and it's just not as good.
posted by like_neon at 1:48 AM on February 9, 2012


Actually, the chance of sickness is really a function of about 4 things.

1. absence or presence of contamination (the type of food and history from slaughter onwards [chicken, cooked or not, is by far the worst culprit in food poisoning]
2. temperature at which food is held (must be below 4deg C or above 55deg C)
3. time: the longer uncooked or cooked food is held between 4 and 55 deg C, the greater is the chance that the bug level (+/- bug toxins) has reached a point that might cause sickness
4. the health of the person -- obviously old people are more susceptible to getting sick from a lower level of bug numbers.

I guess you should also say number 5 : how the food is stored. If it's uncovered and kept below uncovered chicken in a wonky fridge (or next to suspect lettuce as above) then you are increasing the chances that you food will be innoculated with many mo' bugs.

In other words, it's all principles of food handling and, in the absence of knowledge about any of these factors in relation to my minced meat or the shop's hamburger, I'm less willing to tolerate anything medium rare.
posted by peacay at 5:27 AM on February 9, 2012


I always eat my hamburgers medium rare to medium, no matter where I am.
posted by Silvertree at 6:16 AM on February 9, 2012


Just a note, you can easily grind beef to be serviceable for burgers in a regular food processor, which you can then cycle through the dishwasher to sterilize it fairly well. This article from the Kitchn (which looks to an informative Bittman piece) explains it just fine. It's a bit of a loose grind, which is actually great for making crusty pan-seared burgers but maybe not so good on a wire-grate grill.

(I do this for flavor rather than food safety. Beefy cuts like short rib and brisket and skirt steak make great freakin' burgers.)
posted by ftm at 6:50 AM on February 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


Bittman: "Massive batches of ground meat carry the highest risk of salmonella and E. coli contamination, and have caused many authorities to recommend cooking burgers to the well-done stage....there’s little difference, safety-wise, between raw beef and rare beef: salmonella is killed at 160 degrees, and rare beef is cooked to 125 degrees."
posted by Miko at 7:00 AM on February 9, 2012


Bittman wouldn't understand the statistics if they ground him up and cooked him to 125 degrees.
posted by JPD at 7:10 AM on February 9, 2012


Does the CDC understand the statistics? This turns out to be timely.

CDC estimates that each year roughly 1 in 6 Americans (or 48 million people) gets sick, 128,000 are hospitalized, and 3,000 die of foodborne diseases.

What foods are most associated with foodborne illness?
Raw foods of animal origin are the most likely to be contaminated; that is, raw meat and poultry, raw eggs, unpasteurized milk, and raw shellfish.

...Foods that mingle the products of many individual animals, such as bulk raw milk, pooled raw eggs, or ground beef, are particularly hazardous because a pathogen present in any one of the animals may contaminate the whole batch.

A single hamburger may contain meat from hundreds of animals.
A single restaurant omelet may contain eggs from hundreds of chickens.
A glass of raw milk may contain milk from hundreds of cows.
A broiler chicken carcass can be exposed to the drippings and juices of many thousands of other birds that went through the same cold water tank after slaughter.
posted by Miko at 7:24 AM on February 9, 2012


Go look at your CDC data - the vast vast vast majority of food bourne illness is caused by noroviruses. Most e.coli infections come from non-meat sources.

That "massive outbreaks of e.coli" in all your links combined - combined - is 128 people infected with 2 reported deaths. Over three years.

It just isn't anywhere near as big a deal as people like Bittman make it out to be.
posted by JPD at 7:45 AM on February 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


Another confusing issue that Mister Fabulous mentioned in passing:

Mister Fabulous: "

In colonies of meat:
10^3: Fresh beef. Quite fresh and tasty.
10^4: Still fresh and tasty.
10^5: Fresh-ish. Probably no detection in quality difference. We tested grocery store beef that was a day old to be here.
10^6: This is the first turning point. 3 magnitudes past actual fresh and you start to notice the difference. The beef doesn't smell quite as fresh, and the color starts to turn here. The color turning is due to oxidation of the myoglobin in the beef, not bacteria (not to be confused with vacuum-sealed color change). But the color change tends to happen around this level of bacteria. Correlation but not cause. This also happens to be the cut-off for me of where I will eat the burger medium rare and not use this as a burger. This beef would be used for taco meat where I'm going to brown it completely and then slow-cook it in spices.
"

Mr. Fabulous, you said that the color starts to turn, but you didn't specify what the original color should be and what the "turning" color will look like. According to this article, "fresh" ground beef is usually brown, so what does un-safe ground beef look like -- abscence the presence of dyes? I've received conflicting information from butchers and laymen both.

The smell test is all well and good, but what should you look for before you actually make a purchase and bring it home?
posted by LuckySeven~ at 8:45 AM on February 9, 2012


It just isn't anywhere near as big a deal as people like Bittman make it out to be.

I don't contest that other kinds of illnesses are more prevalent. But the OP's question isn't "what other than beef causes foodborne illness?"

For people who are definitely wanting to avoid foodborne illness from beef - which is what the question is about - you can see clearly that avoiding industrial sources will reduce your risk.

People have different levels of risk tolerance and some consider eating industrial beef an infinitesimal risk. Others have it on their mind and may want to reduce their risk. It's possible to do so.
posted by Miko at 9:32 AM on February 9, 2012


but its reducing risk from an incidence rate of 42/300 million (Give or take an order of magnitude for unreported cases and a smaller denominator because of non-meat eaters) to something still greater than 0%.

its almost as risky for me to cross a street as it is for me to eat a rare burger. And the math isn't that different for a well done burger.

That's my only point about Bittman and his innumeracy. Choose to not eat beef rare - fine, but don't go around telling people there is some meaningful level of risk. The data just is not supportive of that assertion.
posted by JPD at 9:43 AM on February 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


According to Centers for Disease Control estimates, up to 20,400 cases of E. coli infection and 500 deaths from E. coli disease occur annually in the United States. Nearly three-quarters of all cases are directly linked to ground beef.

Some more.
posted by Miko at 9:48 AM on February 9, 2012


That's my only point about Bittman and his innumeracy. Choose to not eat beef rare - fine, but don't go around telling people there is some meaningful level of risk. The data just is not supportive of that assertion.

Whether or not you find it meaningful, I think it's fair for some people to argue that whatever the level is it's still an unacceptable level of risk, because it is an avoidable risk.
posted by Miko at 9:49 AM on February 9, 2012


Mr. Fabulous, you said that the color starts to turn, but you didn't specify what the original color should be and what the "turning" color will look like. According to this article, "fresh" ground beef is usually brown, so what does un-safe ground beef look like -- abscence the presence of dyes? I've received conflicting information from butchers and laymen both.

There's roughly four colors of beef. They can be a bit tricky to determine between them, but once you know, you know:

Pink/Red: This is the fresh color created by oxymyoglobin. This is what you should likely see if the beef is exposed to oxygen, such as that in a butcher's case. This is a good state for the beef to be in. Whether it is pink or red depends on the age of the animal, the cut of meat, fat content, etc.
Purple: Deoxymyoglobin. This is mostly associated with vacuum packed or cryovac meats. If you grab a whole ribeye at a store that is vacuum packed it will appear purple-ish in color. When you break the seal the meat will turn red within 15 minutes once it is oxygenated (back to oxymyoglobin). This is a good state for the beef to be in.
Brown: Specifically uncooked. This is that first turning point I described above. When the myoglobin is exposed to oxygen for too long the myoglobin begins to oxidize. Specifically, the iron in myoglobin goes from the Fe2+ state to the Fe3+ state. Here is a picture of ground beef starting to show the metmyoglobin. The color change is due to the oxidation, not bacteria. But the color change correlates to some degree to bacterial levels.
Gray: This is fully spoiled. I didn't find any pictures of this, but it is noticeably different from even metmyoglobin. You usually can smell the difference as this rank of meat makes me gag.

Here's an excellent comparison picture. The top cut is in the deoxy state, either a freshly cut thick piece or fresh out of a vacuum seal. The middle is in the oxy state, having been exposed to air for at least 15 minutes. The bottom is in the met state: oxidation. Again, the bottom one isn't necessarily spoiled, but it's showing its age.

I won't buy any beef that isn't either Pink/Red or Purple as the metmyoglobin is an indicator that ground beef has been sitting for a couple of days, and steaks have been sitting longer. I never buy the "discount priced because it's going to expire" beef either. A $1 off of a steak isn't worth risking food poisoning. I will cook beef that I have bought that has the metmyoglobin showing up, but I will be cooking it through in most circumstances. If it's going gray, it's goes to the bin.
posted by Mister Fabulous at 10:08 AM on February 9, 2012 [2 favorites]


even at the 20.4k estimate relative to the number of servings of beef consumed annually the risk from food poisoning is less than the risk of me taking a shower. It's also folly to say its a completely avoidable risk. You can still get sick from well cooked meat.
posted by JPD at 10:16 AM on February 9, 2012


I won't eat a burger cooked less than medium-well (even with medium well, I might get the icks, but I'll eat it), due to the "grinding mixes the ick in" factor other people have mentioned above. I suppose if I knew the meat had come from a single cow and been slaughtered and ground in a sanitized facility I might consider it, but I've never been in a situation where that option was offered to me.

In fact, it's only recently that I handed a red-centered hamburger back to my SO saying it "wasn't cooked" and discovered that not only would many people (him, the cook, among them) perceive it as perfectly well cooked, but that such people would never touch a burger that DIDN'T have pink or red in the center. I was shocked, having grown up in a house where we cooked our hamburgers all the way through.

Undercooked ground beef just doesn't pass my risk/reward threshold. But then, I also won't touch a steak that's less than medium, so I'm just...really not a fan of red to begin with.
posted by badgermushroomSNAKE at 12:44 PM on February 9, 2012


I've eaten way, way, way more hamburgers than most people (meat and seafood is the family business). 95% of the burgers I've eaten, anywhere, all over the U.S., have been medium rare. I'm forty-two years old, and I've never gotten food poisoning--or anything else--from eating burgers.

Seriously, the risk is ridiculously small.

(And yes, as others have said, what the cow ate has nothing to do with the bacteria you're afraid of.)
posted by tzikeh at 2:54 PM on February 9, 2012


Again not contesting size of risk, but almost everyone has had food poisoning at some time or another. It is much more common than people tend to think. Most cases go unreported to authorities (because they're mild), and people often don't connect their "24-hour flu" or "stomach bug" with food poisoning when that's often what the cause is.

From a couple months ago:
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said that about 48 million people a year get sick from tainted food, down from the previous, often-cited estimate of 76 million. The number of deaths estimated to come from food poisoning also went down, to about 3,000 a year from 5,000....one in six Americans gets sick each year from tainted food
I know it can seem ridiculous to be concerned but this kind of stuff is what food safety is all about. If you believe you have truly never gotten food poisoning, you have been very lucky, as most of us already have and will again.

As far as beef taste and smell, some contaminants don't change the taste or smell of meat at all, so just be aware of that.
posted by Miko at 3:09 PM on February 9, 2012


I've had food poisoning and, as stated, still will eat medium rare burgers almost anywhere. It's not as if avoiding them doesn't have a downside; you're forced to eat terrible burgers. Is a more enjoyable life worth the small increase in risk one assumes by eating, say, sushi? Certain kinds of cheese? Medium-rare burgers? To me, yes. OP may make a different choice.

But one has to look at both sides of the equation, not just the risk. Hell, we could pretty much eliminate food poisoning if we ate nothing but monkey chow. But would you want to live like that?
posted by Justinian at 5:19 PM on February 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


Weighing in on the rare/medium rare burger side here. I have eaten a terrifying number of burgers over the years from a terrifying number of places over the years, and have NEVER had food poisoning from beef. The times a burger have made me sick have forensically determined to have been due to things like poorly handled condiments, frankly. (No, not determined via a lab, but by working out which people I ate with got sick and what they had)

And I love me any meat that tastes like meat, which means not overcooked, as I see it.
posted by Samizdata at 10:51 PM on February 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


I eat raw beef, including organ meat, several times a year here in Korea.

But it's a different world in terms of quality and safety here, since there are none of the factory farms and industrial production methods for domestic production here. Which is why there are (or were) protests against importation of American beef.

That's probably not helpful, though. I assume the questioner is in America.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 2:56 AM on February 10, 2012


I won't buy any beef that isn't either Pink/Red or Purple as the metmyoglobin is an indicator that ground beef has been sitting for a couple of days, and steaks have been sitting longer.

You don't buy those yummy 21 day aged steaks then? They tend to look like the bottom picture of your three (albeit without the nasty grey patches.)

I wouldn't eat something that had hung around in my own refrigerator for 21 days, but the ones that I buy in Marks and Spencer are sublime, just cooked for a minute on each side.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 4:55 AM on February 11, 2012


If you have a butcher, and you want to make steak tartar, you can ask them to grind it making sure you tell them what you are using it for. This was in Montréal, YMMV.
posted by atomicmedia at 3:38 PM on February 11, 2012


My husband is in the kitchen making kitfo right now. Which is raw beef. Which we are going to eat and enjoy, as we have done many times before. I shouldn't think medium rare would be a problem.
posted by Because at 11:59 AM on February 13, 2012


My mom says that I started eating raw ground beef when I was very young... Every time she made hamburgers I would grab some and eat it. She asked my pediatrician, and he said it was fine (this was in the early 70s), so I've been eating raw beef of all kinds for about 35 years. When I make hamburgers I sometimes skip the burger and just eat the meat raw. I've never had anything other than very mild food poisoning, and never from beef, as far as I know.

I order rare in restaurants, and if they won't do it I order something else. Rare usually comes out as medium rare, which is fine.

I'm curious, do the people here who eat well-done burgers use lots of condiments? I put mayo and pepper on a burger, and that's it, but I can't imagine a well-done burger being good like that... Too dry.

The searing and grinding idea is great for those who worry. I grind with a Kitchenaid mixer attachment, but the food processor works well, too. For first-timers, make sure the meat and the grinder parts are very cold, or you'll get a mushy mess.
posted by Huck500 at 8:09 AM on February 19, 2012


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