MYTH: I don’t need to use a thermometer when I’m cooking hamburgers. If the meat inside the burger is brown–not pink–it’s safe to eat.
FACT: According to USDA research conducted in 1998, one out of every four hamburgers turns brown before it’s been cooked to the safe internal temperature of 160 degrees.
Sandra McCurdy, Extension food safety specialist at the University of Idaho, said that being able to judge the safety of a hamburger based on color is one of the biggest myths she hears in her research on this topic.She pointed out that pigments in hamburgers can vary, which makes judging the safety of a hamburger by color a risky proposition.
In addition, the acidity of the hamburger meat can also vary, with higher-acid burgers more prone to have a persistent pink color.”Some ground beef can stay pink even after it has reached 160 degrees,” McCurdy said. “And some ground beef can turn brown before it has reached that temperature.”
“The key is that you’ve got to use a thermometer to make sure the meat is safe ” said Karen Killinger, consumer food safety specialist at Washington State University. “There’s no way around it.”
Food safety scientists say that the thermometer should be inserted into the side of the hamburger–not into the top of it–to make sure the internal temperature has reached 160 degrees F.
Killinger pointed out that people already rely on thermometers for a range of things such as checking a child’s temperature or the temperature inside and outside a house.
“Why not use a meat thermometer to check the safety of your meat,” she said.
MYTH: If I buy hamburger meat in the store, it must be safe because it has passed inspection. And I only have to be careful with hamburger meat when there’s an E. coli outbreak.
FACT: Killinger said that meat processors do use food safety programs and specific practices to reduce pathogen risk during meat production and that the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service does provide regulatory oversight of these food safety procedures.
But she also said that food-safety procedures used during meat processing cannot completely eliminate pathogen risk.
“This year at least 4 recalls for meat products have occurred where pathogens like E. coli O157:H7 and Salmonella have been detected,” Killinger said.
Pointing out that the most critical part of ensuring that hamburgers are safe to eat rests in the hands of the consumers, Killinger said that cooking is the most effective way to eliminate pathogens from meat and other food products.
“Proper cooking of hamburgers to 160 degrees by consumers is a critical step that can eliminate pathogens and prevent foodborne illness every day–not just during a foodborne outbreak,” she said.
MYTH: You can rely on the cooking instructions on the labels on hamburger packages.
FACT: McCurdy said that in many cases, the instructions on the packaging are not accurate. That’s why the safest way to go is making sure the hamburger has reached an internal temperature of 160 degrees F before taking it off the grill or out of the frying pan.
MYTH: Freezing kills pathogens such as E. coli and Salmonella, so hamburger meat that has been frozen doesn’t need to be cooked to 160 degrees F.
FACT: Freezing does kill some pathogens, but it can’t kill all of them, said Christine Bruhn, a food safety specialist at the University of California, Davis. “Using frozen hamburger meat or patties doesn’t mean you’ve got a pathogen-free product.”
MYTH: You should only flip a hamburger once.
FACT: Although many people only flip a hamburger one time when they’re cooking it, food safety specialists say that frequently flipping a hamburger is safer.
Bruhn said that’s because the side of the hamburger that’s away from the heat of the grill or the bottom of a frying pan is a lot cooler than the side closest to the heat. In fact, the temperature difference between the two sides can be as much as 80 degrees F.
Although food safety specialists say that flipping a burger every 30 seconds will do the best job of evening out the temperature of the hamburger, they realize that most people aren’t going to do that.
“Flip a one-half inch burger every couple of minutes,” McCurdy said.
Killinger said that flipping a burger several times while cooking helps the burger cook faster and that the temperature of the meat will be more uniform.
MYTH: It’s safe to eat rare or medium-rare hamburgers that are made from meat from locally raised, organic, and grass-raised cows–or from very expensive cuts of meat.
FACT: Bruhn said that even though she hears statements like that a lot, there’s no truth in it.
Food scientists point out that E. coli O157:H7 and other Shiga toxin-producing E. coli strains can be found in the intestinal tracts of people and animals, especially in ruminants such as cattle and sheep. Bottom line, it comes down to keeping meat free of any traces of poop, something that doesn’t always happen when the meat is being processed.
MYTH: Outbreaks are really rare and only happen to people who don’t take care of their health.
FACT: Bruhn also said that although E. coli poisoning primarily affects children and older people, young, healthy people can still come down with food poisoning–sometimes severe cases of it.
“Anyone can become ill from these pathogens,” she said. “The most graphic example of that is the young dancer who was physically fit and in the prime of her life but who was brought to her knees by E. coli.”
Bruhn was referring to Stephanie Smith, a 22-year-old children’s dance instructor who was left paralyzed from an E. coli-contaminated hamburger.
Bruhn said that during a recent food-safety conference, a scientist told the group that E. coli is always looking for iron. As it goes through the intestine, it hooks onto the intestinal wall and starts drilling into it in search of iron-rich blood.
When that happens, said Bruhn, it causes such excruciating pain that doctors put the patient into a chemically induced coma.
“This is something no one wants to fool around with,” she said. “You want to prepare against it so you can prevent it.”
MYTH: You don’t need to be all that sanitary in the kitchen or around the grill because cooking hamburger meat kills pathogens.
FACT: Bruhn bristles at statements like that, pointing out that in 32 percent of the cases in one study, researchers found that people preparing food were touching lettuce and hamburger buns after they had handled the hamburger–without washing their hands with soap and water first. If the hamburger is contaminated with E. coli, that could lead to cross contamination of the lettuce and buns, said Bruhn.
“You need to wash your hands with soap and water before and after you handle meat,” she said, adding that you should dry your hands with a paper towel, not a dish towel. “And you also need to do that before and after you pet your dogs or cats,” she said, “because they can carry E. coli.”
MYTH: Wearing gloves when handling hamburger meat provides a safe barrier against E. coli.
FACT: Bruhn said that gloves aren’t a complete safeguard against E. coli because the bacteria can actually travel through the pores of the gloves. That means you’ll need to wash your hands before you put on the gloves and after you’ve taken them off.
MYTH: There’s no absolute guarantee that hamburger meat won’t contain some E. coli.
FACT: Bruhn said that irradiated hamburger, which can be purchased from Schwan’s and mail ordered from Omaha Steaks, is free of pathogens. And in the Northeast, some stores sell fresh irradiated hamburger.
“My husband likes pink hamburgers,” Bruhn said, explaining why she stocks up on irradiated hamburgers. “I like my husband, and I want to keep him around.”
While she prefers the taste of a non-irradiated hamburger, Bruhn said that once you’ve put condiments such as catsup or mustard on an irradiated hamburger, there’s only a slight difference in taste between the two types of hamburgers.
See also: Cooking hamburgers safely
Photos: USDA project, Advancing Accurate Consumer use of Instant-read Food Thermometers through Grocery Stores and Women Infants and Children (WIC) Programs Funded by USDA.