Tainted hamburgers put beef safety on front burner

February 03, 1993|By Orange County Register

Like your burgers medium-rare? Think twice.

People who stuck to beef after hearing about safety concerns in pork, chicken and fish are apt to shrink at the news of fast-food hamburgers tainted with bacteria.

In terms of food safety, is beef more of a risk than previously thought? Here are answers to several key questions.

Q: Why are hamburgers riskier than other cuts of beef?

A: Bacteria are often found in all kinds of animal products, but cooking or pasteurization usually kills them. Ground beef is an ideal breeding ground for bacteria. The chopping process disperses bacterial colonies throughout the meat. If burgers or other dishes containing ground meat are not thoroughly cooked, the bacteria might multiply. A strain of E. coli bacteria, a particularly virulent form, can cause severe diarrhea and other symptoms.

Q: My kids love fast-food burgers. Do we skip them?

A: Be certain that the food is cooked all the way through. Before you hand out the kids' meals or bite into your own, cut the burger in half and have a look. There should be no traces of pink in the center, nor traces of blood in the juices.

Q: I love rare hamburgers. What do I do?

A: Change your tastes, or take your chances. Rare cuts of steak, such as loin cuts, however, don't pose the same health risk as do ground patties.

Q: Are raw beef dishes out of the question?

A. Carpaccio (the Italian style of thin slices of raw beef often coated with olive oil) is cut from whole muscle meat. The risk is there, but not as great as with hamburger. Steak tartare is a double threat: Raw ground beef is mixed with uncooked egg, a food already linked with salmonella food poisoning.

Q: Who's at greatest risk for health problems?

A: Anyone is vulnerable, but young children, frail individuals, pregnant women, the elderly and those with immunodeficiencies such as AIDS face serious health risks or even death if they consume contaminated food.

Q: How do I know that the ground beef I'm buying to use at home is safe?

A: Bacteria are invisible to the naked eye. The first line of defense is to buy from a trusted source with a rapid turnover of fresh meat. According to the Beef Industry Council:

* The meat should be packed on a tray with plastic over-wrap.

* Ground meat should be a bright cherry-red color.

* Avoid packages with any tears or punctures.

* Check for freshness dating. Wording varies from retailer to retailer. Feel free to ask questions.

Q: Is there anything special I should do at home to cut the risk?

A: Bring any meat, especially ground products, directly home. Immediately refrigerate or freeze them.

Cook them properly. Beef should be cooked to an internal temperature of 160 degrees. Use a meat thermometer to check. The center of the meat should be light gray, and the juices should run clear.

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