Is there a burger law in Toronto? Recently I returned to The Burger Bar for my third visit in eight days–I had a free burger coupon that was going to expire–and asked that my burger be cooked medium. My good-natured server said that she wasn’t sure this was allowed but checked with the kitchen and they said that health code requires ground meat be cooked to 71 degrees celsius, “a little bit past medium”. This is actually quite far past medium (63ºC) but quibbling with Kensington’s burger joint is not the point of this venture. I am wondering if there is a Burger Law in Toronto? Would a restaurant actually be violating a mandatory requirement if they served a hamburger cooked to a temperature below 71ºC?
Two things are clear to me: 1. Some restaurants will intentionally serve a hamburger (especially if requested) medium or medium-rare; and 2. The City has guidelines which at least recommend that all ground meat be cooked to well-done. The point which I wanted to clarify is: Are the restaurants who refuse a patron’s request just timid; and conversely are the restaurants willing to serve a medium-rare burger breaking the law?
Now that we have established the question under investigation let’s agree on some terms. First, we should have a doneness scale and I think the one set out in this wikipedia article is as good as any–note that just as there is no Italian for “foreplay” there is no word in French for “well-done”–and I’ll use the middle of each range when referring to a temperature by its written name (e.g. “medium” is 63ºC). Also, I’m used to cooking meat to a certain doneness on the Fahrenheit scale–for once it provides a wider range and more accuracy–but because we are dealing with regulations written by Canadian governments here I’ll try to stick to Celsius. Secondly, without having to agree whether rare is better than medium-rare or medium is ideal (my preference varies a bit depending on the cut of beef used and the coarseness of the grind) let’s agree that medium-well or well-done are certainly past the point at which any hamburger is most delicious and therefore most desirable. Finally, we should recognise that restaurants face the necessary requirement of operating their business within a regulatory environment that is concerned almost entirely with safety and almost not at all with taste.
From my experience I know that some Toronto restaurants will serve a hamburger cooked to order. I wouldn’t want to be responsible for this situation changing so I won’t name them here but suffice it to say that any place that charges $15-17 and has built a reputation for serving good food will usually accommodate a request for a medium-rare burger. One exception to this rule was an establishment that refused my request and the waiter even had a rehearsed anecdote about how they had also demurred when Travolta made the same request. Here is a chowhound thread that names most of the places in Toronto that will cook a burger to ordered doneness.
The best place to take my questions about the regulation seemed to be by asking a few questions of Toronto’s authorities and with the gracious help of my councillor John “Food Cart” Filion I got in touch with someone at Toronto Public Health (TPH). Most importantly, they confirmed that the Ontario Regulation governing Food Premises does require that ground meat be cooked to 71°C. For those interested the actual regulation is R.R.O. 1990, Reg. 562 s. 33 as amended by O. Reg. 74/04 s. 1 and the wording is:
(7) The following shall be cooked to reach an internal temperature of at least 71 degrees Celsius for at least 15 seconds:
… 3. All parts of ground meat, other than ground meat that contains poultry.
To clarify the arcane legal symbology the “o4″ means that this regulation was an amendment enacted in 2004 under the same McGuinty government that (temporarily) banned fresh sushi in Ontario. Debating the necessity of this regulation could (and might) make up another post. As far as TPH is concerned the motto for now is “if it’s grey it’s safe”.
Crystal clear, right? Well, not quite. It’s obvious that some restaurants are serving burgers cooked well below 71ºC and my contact at TPH recognises that some of the realities of this situation are that it’s very difficult to measure the exact temperature of a flat patty of ground meat and that inspectors will only visit a particular establishment 2 or 3 times in a year. Complaints from customers about patties that are under-cooked in the centre will bring an inspector to an establishment.
Another problem is that–in typical fashion for bureaucracy in a democracy–while it’s a municipal body that does the inspections and enforcement the rules are written at the provincial level. So, the answer to my question about why it’s okay to serve raw ground meat (steak tartare) was a (quite reasonable) telephonic shrug and an explanation that the writers of the regulation only deemed it necessary to cover cooked meat. Still the City does confuse the matter by having two separate pages one that says ground meat must be cooked to 68ºC and another that gives 71ºC.
Now, this is just my opinion but the strong sense I get is two-fold. First, an inspector would never go out of their way to order a burger medium-rare. They won’t ask employees to not wash their hands and they will not surreptitiously release a mouse just to test how the restaurant responds so they won’t ask an establishment to violate the regulation in this way. Secondly, while I’m sure an inspector would be well within their rights to stand in the kitchen with a probe thermometer and measure what temperature every burger is cooked to, the regulation says nothing about serving temperature and so there is no way, in my view at least, that an under-cover inspector could reasonably sit at a table, take the temperature of the burger they are served, which has probably cooled a bit from its peak and shut a restaurant down. Judging a burger’s doneness by colour is subjective.
Were I to eat at McDonald’s I definitely wouldn’t want my two Big Mac patties served anything other than well-done. (That being said, I would give a couple fingers from my left hand if it would help bring an In-N-Out franchise to Toronto and there I would happily eat a fast-food, medium burger.) When I pay more than ten dollars for a burger and fries at a trustworthy establishment that proclaims the source of its beef right on the menu I want the option to order my hamburger medium-rare. If a restaurant trusts their supplier and their own kitchen’s cleanliness there is no more reason to refuse a customer who makes such a request than their is to refuse them lettuce.