The Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI) has warned that food safety should not be compromised to meet consumer trends such as the demand for undercooked minced beef burgers.

The agency said safety of the product is dependent on sufficient cooking to ensure destruction of pathogens such as Shiga toxin-producing E. coli (STEC) O157.

It advises minced beef burgers should be cooked to a temperature of 75 degrees C tested at the thickest part of the burger by a food thermometer or to an equivalent temperature time combination. Minced meats are referred to as ground meat in the United States.

A trend in catering establishments has seen the use of lower cooking temperatures due to a belief it results in a better flavor and texture that reflects the preference of the modern consumer.

An FSAI survey of STEC and Salmonella spp. in raw minced beef and beef burgers from retail and catering outlets in 2011 found that 0.1 percent, 0.2 percent and 2.5 percent were contaminated with Salmonella spp., E. coli O157 and non-O157 STEC, respectively.

Studies in 2014 and 2015 discovered that 3 percent and 29 percent of minced beef samples in Ireland are contaminated with Salmonella spp. and Listeria monocytogenes.

During mincing and mixing of the meat, pathogens on the surface are often transferred  to the center of the product, which usually receives minimum heat treatment during cooking.

Dr. Pamela Byrne, CEO of FSAI, said during the summer months, minced beef burgers are a popular go-to food for many people.

“We have had people become ill due to a serious food poisoning outbreaks associated with undercooked beef burgers in a catering establishment. Chefs and caterers must ensure that minced beef burgers are cooked thoroughly before serving and waiting staff should not ask customers how they want their minced beef burgers cooked,” she said.

An Irish STEC O157 outbreak involving 11 cases in 2016 was linked to a restaurant serving undercooked beef burgers.

In 2013, bovine meat was identified as the most common vehicle of transmission for STEC, being responsible for four of 10 strong evidence outbreaks, according to the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) and European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC).

In the United States, between 2006 and 2016, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) investigated 28 multi-state outbreaks of STEC illness. In six of them, minced beef was among the products involved.

FSAI said caterers should not serve, offer or advertise undercooked or “pink” minced beef burgers.

Byrne said foodservice businesses must have a food safety management system which identifies hazards and outlines critical control points to ensure food safety.

“Cooking food to the correct temperature is the critical control point for serving safe minced beef burgers. Regular checks should be carried out on the core temperature of minced beef burgers using a probe thermometer, as color alone is not a reliable indicator. Consumers also need to ensure that when they are cooking minced beef burgers at home, that they are cooked until they are piping hot all the way through,” she added.

FSAI said customers may request undercooked or rare minced meat burgers, but this does not exempt a food business’s duty to sell safe food or protect it from potential prosecution.

The agency added any deviation from thorough cooking must be scientifically validated to ensure production of safe food. Scientific validation is complex and requires technical microbiological expertise.

Current United Kingdom advice for cooking of burgers is 70 degrees C for two minutes.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration specifies ground beef products must be cooked to heat all parts of the food to a minimum temperature of 63 degrees C for three minutes, 66 degrees C for one minute, 68 degrees C for 15 seconds or 70 degrees C.

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