Handle With Care

Extra precautions are necessary when handling any kind of meat in the restaurant kitchen, as animal foods have a greater tendency to harbor harmful bacteria. Ground meats are especially vulnerable. During grinding, more of the surface area is exposed to pathogens that can rapidly multiply if food safety measures are not followed.

E. coli 0157:H7, the deadly bacterial strain, is of particular concern with ground beef products. Here’s why:

  • E. coli can colonize in the intestines of animals and contaminate the muscle meat from which burgers are ground. This bacterial strain produces large quantities of a toxin that can cause severe damage to the lining of the human intestine.

  • It takes a very small dose of E. coli to cause serious illness and even death, especially in high-risk populations like children, the elderly and those with compromised immune systems.

  • E. coli can survive cold refrigerator and freezer temperatures. Thorough cooking is the only way to kill these bacteria. The USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service advocates cooking burgers to an internal temperature of 160°F. Use a thermometer to gauge doneness; patties may be pink or brown inside but not cooked thoroughly.

“It’s the operator’s responsibility to remind customers that undercooked beef can pose a risk,” says Shelley Feist, executive director of the Partnership for Food Safety Education in Washington, D.C. She suggests posting a warning on the menu or a restaurant wall pointing out the hazards of eating rare burgers.

In the restaurant kitchen, E. coli can spread from raw meat juices to other ingredients and cooked foods through cross-contamination. It’s essential to reinforce these safe handling rules to kitchen staff:

  1. Wash hands thoroughly before and after handling ground meat

  2. Don’t reuse packaging materials from ground meat products

  3. Use hot, soapy water to wash utensils, countertops and other surfaces that have come into contact with raw ground meat

  4. Trays or containers that have held raw ground meat shouldn’t be used to hold cooked burgers or other cooked foods

  5. Do not partially cook burgers ahead of time to hold and finish off for service. Semi-cooking gives harmful bacterial the chance to multiply to the point at which complete cooking will no longer destroy them.

The USDA’s Agricultural Research Service is testing ways to make prep and cooking surfaces more resistant to bacterial contamination. In one initiative, researchers have sanded, grinded, polished and applied electrochemicals to stainless steel; the electropolishing treatment showed the greatest reduction in pathogen growth. These results can impact future restaurant kitchen design.

Also on the drawing board is the Rapid Test for E. coli. ARS scientists, in conjunction with Igene, a biotech company in Gaithersburg, Maryland, have developed an inexpensive immunomagnetic-electrochemiluminescent test for the detection of E. coli in as little as 25 grams of ground beef. The test is easy to administer and 100 times more sensitive than other methods currently available.

Smart sourcing also goes a long way to ensuring bacteria-free burgers. Buy from a trusted supplier who conducts documented testing. Some distributors are also USDA-certified meat processors and run government-regulated inspections. Once those cartons of ground meat are delivered, don’t let them sit unrefrigerated. Safe handling instructions should be clearly printed on the side of the box.

Price outlook

In the cattle industry, the production cycle determines beef supply and to a large extent, prices. Data from Omaha, Nebraska-based Advanced Economic Solutions shows that in 2006, beef production rebounded from 2004 lows, increasing by 6.4 percent. Bigger cattle numbers, higher feedlot inventories and minimal exports combined to push prices downward slightly.

“The outlook for the next few quarters is similar. “We’re looking for higher production and weaker prices to continue into 2007,” says Ken Matthews, an economist with the Economic Research Service of the USDA. Although prime and choice steaks and sub-primals are in smaller supply due to increased demand by high-end steakhouses, that won’t affect burgers. Meat is ground from lean trim mixed with imported beef.

Supply is also high because of a tightening export market. “When Japan stopped importing American beef because of Mad Cow disease, Australia and New Zealand stepped in,” says George Lombardi of Roma Packing in Chicago. “Even though the ban has been partially lifted, it’s a challenge for the United States to recapture that market.”

What happens next has a lot to do with the corn farmers—they will produce corn for whomever will pay the most, Matthews explains. Corn is used both in animal feed and the production of ethanol. Although grass-fed cattle now constitute less than 2 percent of the market, Matthews sees it growing. Grass-fed beef is seen as a healthier, more environmentally sound choice for many Americans. And when that beef is ground, enough fat can be added to create a burger that’s tops in juiciness and flavor.

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