Health Dept.: Avoid rare hamburgers in restaurants

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Some foods are more dangerous than others when it comes to a strain of E. coli that has caused several people to become very ill.

Five people in Michigan and people in several other states have recently contracted a strain of the E. coli bacteria that can prove deadly. The culprit appears to be undercooked ground beef, at least some of which was served in the form of rare hamburgers at restaurants.

Restaurants prepare your food with the intention of killing off the bacteria — unless you tell them not to.

“People should be able to order raw meat on their plate if they want it, especially if you have that disclaimer,” chef and restaurant owner Tommy Fitzgerald said. “It’s America.”

As long as a restaurant’s menu is marked with an asterisk and a warning that says something like ‘Consuming raw or undercooked meats, poultry, seafood, shellfish, or eggs may increase your risk of food-borne illness.’ And while a restaurant cannot serve a child undercooked food, if a person asking for rare meat is an informed adult, it’s not against the law.

But some foods are more risky than others. For example, a rare burger, experts at the Kent County Health Department said, is more likely to carry E. coli than a steak.

That’s because instead of only having to kill potential bacteria on the outside of a solid piece of meat, ground beef mixes the outside and inside and increases the risk of contamination.

That’s why the Kent County Health Department recommends cooking burgers to at least 160 degrees, and checking with a meat thermometer.

Restaurants, unless asked by a customers to serve meat rare, focus on length of cooking time and food temperature to make sure food is properly prepared.

“The health departments and the restaurants are here to make sure you come back,” Fitzgerald said. “We want you to come back and enjoy our food. We’re not out there to get you.”

But Fitzgerald said he doesn’t serve undercooked burgers and doesn’t order them when he dines out.

“There’s certain things I never do when I go to a restaurant,” Fitzgerald said. “I never order a medium rare hamburger. That’s for home after I know where I got the meat.”

The Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development says the state’s investigation into the origin of the E. coli outbreak could take weeks or even months. It’s still unclear which other states have seen cases or how many cases they have seen.

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