When I was in California a couple of months ago, I ordered a hamburger in a restaurant, asking for it to be cooked medium-rare. I was told I couldn't have it that way because they only cooked burgers medium-well.

This wasn't an inexpensive, fast food place but a restaurant, with table service and a wine list. I wasn't being refused a medium-rare burger because the chefs were incapable of cooking one. The reason for the refusal was that the managers were worried I would get food poisoning from undercooked beef and sue them.

Hamburgers have a reputation for causing food-borne illnesses and, every once in a while, they make headlines thanks to mass outbreaks of food poisoning, usually caused by E coli.

E coli thrives in the intestines, rectum and colon of cattle. With beef, the contamination occurs during the butchering process, as a result of poor hygiene and slaughter practices.

A large cut of meat, such as a steak, chop or bris-ket, doesn't usually pose a problem because it's cooked; the contaminated area is on the surface of the beef and the bacteria is killed when subjected to high temperatures.

A hamburger is made up of scraps and off-cuts, so rather than being just on the surface of the meat, E coli can be found inside the patty. Also, the scraps that go into a hamburger are likely to have come from a number of cattle and even if just one of the animals was butchered incorrectly, the E coli in it could contaminate the entire batch. Only by cooking the patty thoroughly, to at least medium-well, can the bacteria be killed.

Outbreaks of E coli are rare, but when they do occur, they can be deadly and affect a lot of people. Many outbreaks can be traced to frozen hamburger patties made at huge production facilities, which is why most fast-food shops - especially the ones that use frozen patties - cook their burgers well.

So, how does one eat a burger without worrying about food poisoning? If you are using frozen patties, cook them thoroughly. If you don't like well-done meat, then buy fresh meat from a reputable supermarket; it's even better if they grind it in-house. An even safer solution would be to grind your own meat: buy a large piece of beef, rinse it thoroughly under cold running water (to wash off any E coli), then grind it in a meat mincer.

As for that hamburger in California, I asked the manager if it was made from frozen patties. He said it was fresh meat. I pointed out that I wasn't pregnant, didn't have a compromised immune system and was neither too young nor too old (these groups are at greater risk of getting extremely ill - or worse - from eating undercooked minced beef). I even told him I was willing to sign a disclaimer, saying I knew the risks of undercooked beef and would absolve the restaurant of responsibility if I got ill. He still refused.

I ended up ordering a steak. Cooked medium-rare.


Truc (tryk): noun, masculine, trick, gimmick, device. A French word for a chef's secret.