The hotter the better, officials say of burgers Perilous bacteria don't die easily

March 01, 1993|By Mike Klingaman | Mike Klingaman,Staff Writer

Maryland restaurants are being advised to put more sizzle in their hamburgers, to guard against a nasty germ with an exotic name.

Health officials want the heat turned up on all ground beef as a precaution against E. coli 0157:H7, a hardy and virulent strain of bacteria.

It caused the January outbreak of food poisoning in Washington state linked to Jack-in-the-Box restaurants, and has claimed at least 24 lives nationally since being identified in 1982.

A dangerous trait of E. coli 0157:H7 is its ability to survive in undercooked hamburger, says the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

The outbreak in the Seattle area, which killed three children and sickened more than 450 people, was triggered by tainted ground beef cooked at too low a temperature.

No cases have been reported here, but the FDA has asked state health departments to spread the word that well-done burgers are safest.

Therefore, the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene recommends that food establishments cook ground beef to an internal temperature of 155 degrees, 15 degrees above the state requirement.

The advisory went out last week to about 30 major restaurant companies and to the Restaurant Association of Maryland. Local health departments, which inspect restaurants, were notified earlier.

The association, which has more than 2,000 members, welcomes the state and federal action and has publicized the new guidelines by newsletter, says Marcia Harris, executive vice president.

Four major fast-food chains with many outlets in Maryland -- Burger King, Hardee's/Roy Rogers, McDonald's and Wendy's -- say they already cook ground beef in a way that meets or exceeds the recommendation.

In the Washington state outbreak, dozens of children under 12 were stricken and many had to be hospitalized. The tainted hamburger patties came from a California processing plant, health authorities say, and also went to outlets in California, Nevada and Idaho. Scattered cases of food poisoning were reported in those states.

The Maryland advisory was sent by Jeanette B. Lyon, chief of the state health department's food-control division, after receipt of an alert from the FDA.

"There are obviously public-health concerns," she says. "This [bacterium] occurs from time to time, and illnesses are so severe. Any time you eat a raw or lightly cooked animal product, consumers must realize they may be [ingesting] bacteria that may be harmful to them."

The FDA says that food poisoning from E. coli 0157:H7 lasts about eight days and is characterized by severe abdominal cramps and diarrhea, which initially is watery but can become very bloody. Some victims, particularly young children, can also suffer permanent loss of kidney function.

Members of the E. coli family of bacteria are mostly benign and colonize the intestinal tract of humans and other warm-blooded animals, including cattle.

Many kinds of bacteria can be found on the surface of any raw meat, but the chopping process used to make hamburger can distribute microorganisms throughout the product.

Thorough cooking kills any hazardous bacteria, the FDA says, but E. coli 0157:H7 is a particularly hardy strain; cooking ground beef to an internal temperature of 140 degrees may not kill the bacterium, but 155 degrees renders it harmless.

Regular meat thermometers -- those with stems -- don't work on hamburger patties because the portions are too thin. To check internal temperature, food establishments often use a probe called a thermocouple wire or other equipment.

How does a consumer or homemaker recognize a "safe" burger?

"It should be cooked until there is no red left and the juices run clear," says Ms. Lyon. At that point, all pathogens in the beef are destroyed.

McDonald's and Burger King use automated cookers to heat hamburger to an internal temperature of 160 degrees, say company officials, while Hardee's/Roy Rogers maintains


...TC minimum standard of 155 degrees. At Wendy's, 165 degrees is the minimum, a company official said.

Some local health departments say they are short of personnel and will be hard-pressed to monitor restaurant performance.

The problem is especially critical in Baltimore, which has 11 food inspectors to oversee more than 6,100 establishments.

That's fewer than half the number of inspectors needed to protect the public's health, says Charles Gilliam, director of the city Bureau of Food Control. Restaurants are supposed to be inspected three times a year but generally receive only an annual checkup, he says.

"We've inspected [restaurants] where beef was being cooked at less than 140 degrees," says Mr. Gilliam. In such cases, the meat is either re-cooked or discarded; city food inspectors regularly condemn more than 10,000 pounds of meat each year.

Health officials in Baltimore and Anne Arundel counties believe they have enough food inspectors. Baltimore County has 13 for 2,440 establishments; Anne Arundel has 10 inspectors and 1,505 outlets.

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