Why "Just Cook It" Won't Cut It
For almost 20 years, I have heard people from the meat industry say “if consumers would only cook their burgers, the E. coli problem would go away”. Here are 10 reasons why the “just cook it” approach will not work:
- 1. E. coli O157:H7 is a unique pathogen. The levels of this organism necessary to cause infection are very low.
- 2. The severity of the disease E. coli O157:H7 can cause, especially in children is devastating.
- 3. In many cases, parents order hamburgers for their children and rely on restaurants to cook them properly. In restaurants, parents really have no control over whether the hamburgers they order are sufficiently cooked to eliminate possible contamination from E. coli O157:H7.
- 4. If consumers unknowingly bring this pathogen into their kitchens, it is almost impossible to avoid cross contamination. Even the smallest amount of contamination on a food that is not cooked can cause illness. Many of the reported cases of E. coli O157:H7 have involved ground beef that was clearly cooked at times and temperatures sufficient to inactivate E. coli O157:H7. Some other vector, i.e. cross contamination was probably involved.
- 5. Even if consumers attempt to use thermometers to measure cooking temperature, it is difficult to properly measure the internal temperature of hamburger patties. They would have to use an accurate thermometer and place the probe exactly into the center of the patty. In addition, the inactivation of E. coli O157:H7 is dependent on cooking time and temperature. For example, if they cook to 155 degrees F, they should hold that temperature for 16 seconds. It is not realistic to expect that consumers, many of which are children will scientifically measure the internal temperature of hamburgers.
- 6. The way ground beef is packaged, it is virtually impossible to remove it from packages or chubs and make patties without spreading contamination if it is present.
- 7. Sometimes ground beef appears to be cooked when it really isn’t. There is a phenomenon called “premature browning” that can make ground beef appear to be fully cooked when in fact it is undercooked.
- 8. E. coli O157:H7 may be present in beef products other than ground beef. For example, in non-intact beef products, including tenderized steaks that are not always cooked to temperatures required for inactivation.
- 9. There have been many cases and outbreaks of E. coli O157:H7 associated with foods that are not cooked (i.e. fresh cut produce).
- 10. As Senator Patrick Leahy said after the 1993 Jack-in-the-Box outbreak – “The death penalty is too strong a punishment for undercooking a hamburger”. He was right –consumers will make mistakes. There needs to be a margin of safety so that undercooking does not result in disease or death.
For these and many other reasons, the problem of E. coli O157:H7 in ground beef and other food products must be solved. Of course proper cooking is important. However, telling consumers to “just cook it” is not the answer.
About Jim Marsden: Dr. James L. Marsden is Regent's Distinguished Professor of Food Safety and Security at Kansas State University, and the senior science advisor for the North American Meat Processors Association. He is the past president of the American Meat Institute Foundation in Washington, DC and a graduate of Oklahoma State University.