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FSA: rare burger risks ‘acceptable’ for careful restaurants

Tom Wall01/07/2015 - 14:25

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Rare burgers are now widespread in the UK
Rare burgers are now widespread in the UK

• CIEH says consistent enforcement difficult  
• Pennington says stick with existing rules 

The FSA has told local authorities not to take action against food businesses serving pink burgers providing they print warnings on their menus and put in place safeguards to control the risks posed by potentially deadly E. coli infections.

Steve Wearne, FSA director of policy, told delegates at the CIEH and TIFSIP annual food safety conference last week the risks were ‘acceptable’ for businesses with approved food safety systems.

‘This has the potential to offer a better public health control than simply banning the process and then allowing the courts to challenge our decision and leaving us in a state of confusion we currently are,’ he said. 

Mr Wearne stressed the FSA still supported the recommendation of its Advisory Committee on the Microbiological Safety of Food (ACMSF) for thorough cooking to kill all pathogens in burgers.

But he said that the food watchdog now proposed that ‘no action be taken against those businesses that are not cooking burgers thoroughly but do have validated food safety systems in place, which achieve a similar level of pathogen reduction through a combination of sourcing, treatment and preparation on the premise.’

 Jenny Morris, the head of the Institute of Food Safety Integrity and Protection, said it was still not clear what constituted a properly validated HACCP system for the production of under-cooked burgers.

‘Until the evidence for safe systems is available EHOs really need some examples of what a good, well-validated HACCP should look like. Without this it will be virtually impossible to make consistent enforcement decisions,’ she said.

She also questioned if consumers would be able to grasp the infrequent but serious risks posed by pink burgers.

‘Will consumers really be able to understand the risks from a product with the potential to carry a low dose, intermittently occurring pathogen that can cause death and severe disability? Much research shows that general risk based judgement is poor,’ she said.

Ms Morris, who also CIEH principal policy officer, added that menu warnings would not absolve the business of responsibility. 

‘I believe also that any warning would not absolve the business of responsibility should harm occur. Decisions about extent of liability would hinge around the business's HACCP which the FSA has made clear must be good along the whole supply chain,’ she said.

Professor Hugh Pennington, who has chaired two public inquires into E. coli outbreaks, told EHN that the risks could not be managed safely.

‘For me the only alternative to the ACMSF safe cooking procedure necessary to  prevent E. coil O157and other similar contaminants causing a potentially lethal infection would be irradiation of the mince. No chance. It has to be the ACMSF,’ he said.

The FSA has been forced to rethink its approach as the trend for serving burgers rare has spread throughout out the UK and restaurants have challenged councils taking enforcement action.

In 2013 a judge upheld part of an appeal by Davy’s – a restaurant chain that operates 26 restaurants across London - against a notice requiring it to change the way it cooked burgers. The judge ruled that it was acceptable for Davy’s to serve burgers rare because it sourced its beef from a reputable supplier.

A restaurant in Portsmouth, 6 oz Burgers, is currently challenging a hygiene emergency prohibition notice preventing it from serving burgers rare. The case is expected to be heard at Portsmouth magistrates this month.

Last year 22 people were made ill with E. coli with three hospitalised after eating undercooked burgers at the SSE Hydro conference centre in Glasgow.

The 1993 Jack in the Box E. coli outbreak in the US, which was linked to undercooked burgers, led to the deaths of four children. It made 732 people ill, with 195 hospitalised

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2112 days ago
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I'm in complete agreement with Jenny Morris but the FSA has shown again how, despite its best efforts and good intentions, that it completely misunderstands business and the basic principles of liability. To place a warning on a menu is a concession that the business thinks there is a danger in eating the food. Jenny is therefore quite correct that any illness suffered would mean that the offence under article 14 was committed at the point of sale. No amount of signage places any duty of care onto the customer and this is quite correct. A HACCP system based on known principles guarantees safe food and this is the approach I use when advising businesses on how to safely serve pink burgers and steak tartar.

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