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SafeFood© is Possible

Unlike my fellow blogger, Bill Marler (yes the highly regarded food liability lawyer who blogs at http://www.marlerblog.com/2009/05/articles/case-news/marler-honored-blessed-hard-work-or-just-damn-lucky/index.html) I DO eat hamburgers. In fact (full disclosure here) my family is active in the beef production industry: my husband and daughter are beef producers and on occasion, I work with the state Beef Industry Council on student education programs. Marler’s recent blogs have commented on President Obama’s cavalier attitude when ordering hamburgers at a restaurant (a restaurant with a low inspection score) and how a “teachable moment” had been missed. I don’t disagree with this – and have long advocated for consumers to take control of situations. Don’t just order burgers cooked to the “medium” stage, specify you want an internal temperature reading of 160° F.

The restaurant should be able to deliver. So if your wait staff member looks confused, gently ask him/her to talk with the manager. You see, according to the licensing guidelines in most states (based on Food Code 2005), a calibrated thermometer should be on hand to check the final temperature. More recent guidelines specify the probe diameter (less than .065 inches) for thin foods (those less than 1/2”). Most hamburger patties fit the less than 2 inch thick description, so the appropriate thermometer should be available to check the temperature. Even better, the restaurant should record that this was done and by whom.

Yes, we have had problems in this country with outbreaks of foodborne illnesses – often due to dubious practices and failure to follow regulations. There needs to be strengthening of compliance – not more rules. Incentives, as Marler suggests, are a great idea – basic motivational research supports that approach. Yet everyone needs to take basic precautions – simply washing hands before eating, avoiding temperature abuse of foods, and cleaning food surfaces properly will go a long way to reducing risks. If President Obama had made a big deal of washing of his hands before eating, and of specifying the temperature of the burgers – that indeed would have been educational. Another food safety blogger (Doug Powell at KSU) once joked about carrying a thermometer to neighborhood grilling events. I guess that is no different than carrying hand sanitizers around. Seriously though, those are logical actions. In my view, these steps are much more logical than avoiding certain foods just because there is an element of risk – a risk that is mitigated by proper cooking. In fact, there are feces from some species of animals (birds, deer, wild pigs, pets etc) on fresh produce. That is why we wash fresh produce before eating. So fire up the grill and enjoy a juicy hamburger – just cook it completely.
Beef – it’s “what’s for dinner” in my house!

Submitted by Catherine Strohbehn, PhD, RD, CP-FS