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Bloody burgers are ‘unsafe’

Stuart Spear12/06/2013 - 13:00

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Rare burgers may contain E. coli
Rare burgers may contain E. coli

The UK’s top E. coli expert, Prof Hugh Pennington, has warned it is only a matter of time before we see a potentially fatal E. coli outbreak following the latest gourmet trend in serving rare burgers.

The warning comes in the wake of a crackdown by Westminster City Council on food outlets serving undercooked burgers. In what is being seen as a landmark case Westminster EHOs issued an improvement notice on the wine bar chain Davy’s requiring them to put in place adequate safety controls when serving the rare mince.

Davy’s appealed the notice at Westminster magistrates court, with the outcome expected in the next two weeks.

Speaking at the fourth annual CIEH food safety conference Prof Pennington told delegates that E. coli O157 was such a virulent pathogen that just one bacterium could potentially kill. He also warned that prevention is paramount as once contracted there is no simple cure.

He told delegates that concern over bloody burgers was due to E. coli O157 sitting on the surface of the meat and so once minced the bacteria can be spread anywhere in the burger. By failing to cook the patty all the way through the consumer risks a potentially fatal dose.

‘There is no way that you can guarantee the safety of a burger by current process, however good your slaughterhouse and however good the processing subsequent to that,’ said Prof Pennington.

‘Food outlets can’t say that the slaughterhouse they are buying the meat from, other than it is doing all it can to reduce risk, is delivering to them meat that does not have E. coli O157. You cannot under any circumstances make it safe without cooking or heat-treating.’

According to Prof Pennington the UK is complacent over the new gourmet trend because there is no historic E. coli outbreak from undercooked burgers. ‘People get poisoned by eating what is basically a bloody burger and it is going under the radar, it is not being picked up by the press, which is perhaps not surprising,’ said Prof Pennington.

He said the UK regarded one of the main causes of E. coli in meat as cross contamination in butchers. In the US, where eating rare burgers is much more common, more than 40 per cent of cases E. coli has been traced back to ground beef.

‘The defence argues it is not happening very often, maybe every thousandth meal will kill you, but that is too many. Prevention is better than cure, especially when there is no cure,’ pointed out Prof Pennington.

Following the crackdown by Westminster City Council a number of London restaurants have taken rare burgers off their menu.

An increasing number of EHPs have called on the Food Standards Agency (FSA) to provide clear guidance in order to develop a consistent response to the problem.

James Armitage, Westminster’s service manager for food, health and safety said: ‘We are aware that, amongst regulators, there is a distinct lack of clarity around the necessary safety controls for undercooked burgers.

‘The feedback we have had from businesses is that there is an increasing amount of enforcement in this area but this is patchy and inconsistent. Businesses and regulators alike would benefit from centrally issued FSA guidance on this matter, which offers a range of practical solutions to the problem as well as enforcement guidelines.

‘Clear guidance would benefit businesses who can then get on with the job of serving their customers.’

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