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One Step Safer

Beef ready to be sterilised

As our neighbours in the EU are finding Escherichia coli (or e. coli for short) is a frighteningly dangerous bacterium. It kills more frequently than it should but this is still a statistically very low number. Just as concerning though are the cases of life-altering kidney and liver disfunction that can afflict the survivors. E. coli ought to be taken seriously and as new, more dangerous strains evolve eating like our grandparents did is not good or safe enough.

The two leading causes seem to be improperly-washed green vegetables (spinach, sprouts, lettuce) and ground beef. At this point I am unequivocally unwilling to give up eating and making my own hamburgers, cooked medium-rare to medium, from freshly-ground beef.

I feel that by grinding large cuts of meat that were bought from trusted sources I can reduce the risk of infection enough that the burgers can be cooked to the temperature where I would eat steak. Or at least that’s where my feeling stood before this large outbreak. Even though the tragic events in Germany are probably not (directly) related to beef I’m willing to consider options that will make hamburgers safer.

The story with beef and e. coli is a bit complicated and I don’t claim to be an expert (especially if you get sick and are looking for someone to sue) but it roughly breaks down this way:

  • E. coli bacteria are prevalent in the digestive tracts of cows. Some strains are harmless to humans but some can kill us.
  • There is a danger that e. coli will be consumed by humans if meat is exposed directly to faeces or if it is exposed to hide that has contacted faeces.
  • Roasts and steaks are generally safe for consumption if their centre is cooked to a temperature that is below what is lethal to the bacteria. This is because the e. coli are only on the outside of the piece of meat and those surfaces come in contact with a pan, grill, griddle, or air that is hot enough, for long enough, to kill the bacteria.
  • Hamburgers and other ground beef preparations are more troublesome because even when freshly ground at home, the grinding process moves meat that was on the outside (and therefore could have been contaminated) to the inside (where it may not be cooked to a safe temperature). The movement and heat created by the grinding process can also cause a larger and therefore more dangerous e. coli colony to flourish if care is not taken or more than a minimum amount of time passes between grinding and cooking.

My thinking on this topic was clarified when I read Josh Ozersky’s June 8 column in Time magazine about the issue. Josh, with input from an exchange with Craig “Meathead” Goldwyn, offers four solutions: irradiated beef; sous vide burgers; boiling-water sterilisation before grinding; and “gather your courage, eat good meat and hope for the best.” I don’t have the equipment or inclination to try irradiation, sous-vide sounds interesting but too much trouble for burgers, and while the last is also my general philosophy on meat it’s the sterilisation that really caught my attention.

Beef shoulder having been sterilised

Beef shoulder having been sterilised

I disagree with Josh that this step will be too much trouble for home grinders. Here’s what I did:

  1. Filled an electric kettle to the “max fill” line and turned it on;
  2. Set a pan big enough to hold my chuck shoulder roast over medium heat, timed roughly so that it would have spent three minutes heating by the time the kettle was ready;
  3. When the kettle had reached a full boil used tongs to transfer the meat into the pan and poured the water over it;
  4. Slapped the lid on and counted ten steamboats.

Voila, sterilised beef. I proceeded as normal by cubing the beef, freezing it for at least fifteen minutes (the time it takes a propane grill to heat), and then ground it in my well-chilled, manual grinder.

The roast was an absolutely unappetising gray colour before it was cut and ground but that didn’t carry over to the burgers and I couldn’t detect any flavour difference. Sure, this is another hoop to jump through that makes me think ruefully of the days when finding a butter knife to pry apart those frozen, frighteningly perforated President’s Choice patties seemed like a lot of work but I think it’s worth jumping. For those cooking burgers for infants, expectant mothers, the elderly or people with compromised immune systems this adds a good level of protection and for the rest of us it’s a reminder to be thoughtful, careful, and deliberate about our meat-eating.

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  1. jaime says:

    I think a much more simple solution is stricter sanitation laws for slaughter houses, and getting rid of industrial farming practices. If we force the meat industry to humanely raise their animals then I think a lot of the sickness we’re seeing would be minimized.

    Cows aren’t intended to eat corn (which is primarily what they’re fed in the US). It causes outbreaks of e. coli in their guts. Cows aren’t intended live knee deep in their own waste either. They go to slaughter caked in their own feces. No wonder the meat gets “dirty”.

    Anyhow- I’m all for a movement towards reclaiming grass roots farming and properly raising food animals for a clean slaughter.

  2. Andrew says:

    So, is the idea here that the very outside bit gets sterilized? Because 10 steamboats sure doesn’t sound like a lot in terms of raising the temp.

  3. foodwithlegs says:

    Jaime: Thanks for commenting. I’ll grant that your general solution might be more ethical and produce more delicious meat but it is definitely not simple. It wil take a huge shift in our consumption and spending patterns that will not happen any time soon.

    Also, small-scale food production is no guarantee against contamination. The advantages of lower densities and feeding cows grains and grasses that they are more suited to digest must be balanced against the disadvantages of adding each marginal, less skilled, equipped, and inspected farmer to the system as concentration decreases and production spreads more broadly. Anyway, even if we agree that your solution is the way things should be it is not the way they are and in either case vigilance is still critical.

    Andrew: That’s correct. My understanding is that e. coli cannot contaminate the inside of beef muscle or fat tissue but only lives on the outside of a piece of meat so only that part needs to be sterilised.

  4. [...] are, so when I grind the meat myself, I feel comfortable cooking it to less than well-done, though I’m still not taking every precaution I could. I get squeamish around store-bought ground beef, and even more so around pre-made burger [...]

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