As described by Dennis Johnson in his recent article from our Regulatory Round-Up Newsletter, the current human illness rate for E. coli O157:H7 has not gone down as documented by the Centers for Disease Control and is, in fact, trending upwards. This is very concerning. Our firm has been advocating that the beef industry be aware of this information, review their food safety systems and ensure they are doing everything possible to “attack this pathogen at the slaughter and processing levels.” As a prior regulator and a current advisor to the beef industry, I feel very strongly that this is necessary and that the beef industry has and will continue to remain vigilant in the “war on this pathogen.”
For a moment however, I must speak as a consumer, which I am. As I search the internet, I compare downloadable menus to the FDA Food Code. Yes, I realize the Food Code is not mandatory, and the one in use varies by state. That said, at the “local burger joints,” this is what I have been finding:
According to the various editions of the Food Code, my burger should be cooked well done (e.g. the FDA 2013 Food Code indicates comminuted meat should be cooked to 158°F). The Food Code does permit “consumer advisories” alerting the person ordering “of the significantly increased risk of consuming such foods by way of a disclosure and reminder such as on the menu or brochures that consuming raw or undercooked meats, poultry, seafood, shellfish, or eggs may increase your risk of foodborne illness.” Restaurants are not permitted to serve undercooked burgers to children.
While many of the internet menus that I have found for “local burger joints” do contain the necessary advisory statement, I am left to ponder whether the consumer is more intrigued and motivated by the highlighted ordering options than they are concerned by the advisory in fine print. “Select your protein and cooking temperature” seem to be a very popular way of presenting burgers at the current time. The selection for rare and medium rare cooking temperatures are not discouraged, and in fact, at some locations are “suggested” as preferred.
I am very concerned that individuals ordering may be relying on the restaurant to assist them in making “safe” ordering decisions rather than on the “fine print” advisory at the bottom of the menu alerting them that eating raw or undercooked meat may cause illnesses. It seems possible that the association between rare and undercooked has been lost. In reading “yelp” reviews of these restaurants, it is clear that the individuals eating at these locations are enjoying burgers cooked to the rare temperatures; no one is focusing on the consumer advisory.
As for me, I will continue to “advise” the beef industry to do all they can to prevent E. coli O157:H7 contamination. I will make certain my family orders their burgers well done; as well as educate all those I can to do the same!
About “Dr. Doom”
Mixed in with the attorneys at OFW Law is the former USDA Food Safety Inspection Service’s (FSIS) Administrator, Dr. Barbara Masters. Dr. Masters is a veterinarian who spent eighteen years with FSIS – the final three years as Acting Administrator and Administrator. During her rise to the Administrator’s position, Dr. Masters served as the Deputy Assistant Administrator for Office of Field Operations. While in these key leadership positions at FSIS, Dr. Masters’ primary focus was on the implementation of science-based policies for the protection of public health. Dr. Masters issued the initial Federal Register Notices for a systematic approach to humane treatment of livestock and poultry.
Dr. Masters was involved in the drafting of the training of inspection personnel on the Hazard analysis and critical control points (HACCP) and Sanitation Standard Operating Procedures (SSOP) regulations. She was the lead of the FSIS HACCP Hotline. In addition, Dr. Masters provided technical review for establishment’s hazard analysis, HACCP plans and supporting documentation. She started her career at FSIS as a public health veterinarian that had responsibilities for ante-mortem inspection, sanitation inspection and all post-mortem inspection responsibilities. She has a good understanding of what happens at the in-plant location, because she has spent many of long days working there.