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Stop, Burger Police

An unidentified medium burger

An unidentified medium burger

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”.

At Dangerous Dans the burgers are grey, safe, and entirely unappetizing

At Dangerous Dan's the burgers are grey, "safe", and entirely unappetizing

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.

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8 Comments

  1. mochapj says:

    It’s ridiculous (of course) but I’ve been to places where the waitresses have even told me I could have my burger any way I liked, but then have been foiled when they called the order in to the kitchen. They come slinking back to the table to apologize that the chef has told them I can’t have a medium rare burger, and then proceed to bring something limp and gray.

    Conversely, I’ve been to places that deny you specific toppings, too. Not because they were sold out of them either, but because they were the “purity police”. I’ve come across places that won’t give ketchup, others that are mustard nazis, and some mayo naysayers as well.

    I put this silly regulation on par with all the nonsense surrounding the raw milk controversy. If you don’t want to eat (or drink it) you don’t have to, but at least let us have the option. Of course, that would mean more restaurants and dives would have to learn how to properly gauge doneness, which is an issue all it’s own.

    I say, let them have burgers, any way that they like!

  2. Sheryl says:

    With the recent situation in the US where a woman is now paralyzed from eating an undercooked burger tainted with e.coli, the rule is a reasonable one – for burgers that are pre-ground. Trustworthy source or not, unless you’re there, you have no idea what’s going into that ground beef, and some commercial burgers can contain meat from up to 400 different cows – all at once.

    Most of the places that will do a burger to order are places that are grinding their own meat in-house from choice cuts. It makes a huge difference in terms of food safety. As a customer, you can only trust that the restaurant is being honest about when/where the meat was ground, but that’s generally where the difference lies, although I don’t think the law makes that differentiation.

    The confusion comes into play when servers are ill-informed. I was once at a restaurant where the server brought my husband a well-done steak (it had been ordered rare) and argued with him about whether the restaurant had to cook it to a certain temperature – it took speaking to a manager to conclude that she was confusing the steak with ground beef.

    I’ve also been places where the server will accept an order for a rare burger and will bring it well-done without informing the customers of the rule and giving the option to order something else. Seriously – way to lose your tip.

  3. foodwithlegs says:

    mochapj: Coudn’t agree more. This is a matter of choice and if a restaurant (especially one where burgers are the main event) won’t let me choose to have my burger cooked medium-rare or medium I’ll go elsewhere. Some jurisdictions in the US require patrons to sign a waiver before they can be served a below-160F burger. Not sure how well these would stand up to a lawsuit but I would be happy to sign.

    Sheryl: To some extent I wanted to save the regulatory debate for a later post but I guess the comments here can be a starting point.

    You’re right that the regulations make no distinction between in-house ground, fresh-ground, and commercial frozen.

    The paralysed woman, Stephanie Smith, was infected with e. coli by a highly-processed, frozen hamburger cooked at home (NYT). I don’t advocate cooking these anything less than well-done.

    When I started thinking about and searching for an excellent medium-rare burger in Toronto I too thought that on-site grinding should be the line between those who have to cook the meat well-done and those who don’t. After some reading and more consideration I have to disagree. For instance, George Motz’s Hamburger America tells of an old-style pub in New York City (I don’t have my copy here maybe P. J. Clark’s) that serves an excellent burger made from meat that a local butcher grinds daily and delivers by handcart. I don’t have a problem with this at all. In fact, because of more specialised expertise, returns on scale allowing for better equipment, and less chance of cross-contaminating ready-to-serve ingredients I’d rather see five local butchers grinding meat for twenty or thirty Toronto restaurants than all thirty do it themselves.

    I suppose we may be talking about the same thing except I think the “safe” category should be extended to include locally-ground, never-frozen beef from two or three whole cuts.

  4. [...] come hamburgers have to be cooked to a predetermined internal temperature, but some restaurants are allowed to serve steak tartar? [Food With [...]

  5. Jamie says:

    The 71 degree requirement is (in my uninformed opinion) a weasel clause.

    I’m sure it was put in place because large scale abattoirs are inspected by the government, yet there is still ground meat with E.Coli being provided to our local grocery stores.

    I believe the legislation should be amended to allow abattoirs have that 71 degree requirement waived if the grind procedure is within a small scale (set by legislation) and be regularly inspected just as the normal inspection.

    therefore, ground meat providers can have the choice to sell small scale ground meat with the “seal of approval” that would allow restaurants to serve it however they want. OR to still produce large scale grinds (with the same inspection as it is currently done) and maintain their cost efficiency.

    It would be a drastic change, and I’m sure a tough sell to have the government start putting this (or something similar) in place. As a burger enthusiast, I would like to see this enacted soon.

    I went to burgerbar and got their “kobe” burger, was refused a medium doneness, and it was terrible.

  6. foodwithlegs says:

    Jamie, from my discussion with Toronto Public Health I have to say that it seems like they really believe the 71C rule is necessary from a health perspective. I disagree and so does the empirical evidence from jurisdictions that don’t have this rule but such is life.

    The rule is more or less the result of the incident in 1994 where four kids died from eating contaminated burgers at Jack in the Box (wikipedia).

    I think there are a couple problems with what you propose. First, by re-writing the rule to consider abattoirs you involve a third level of government (they are federally-inspected, I believe) and getting three levels working together is probably not do-able. Also, after Maple Leaf Foods’ problems with listeria I don’t think the public has much trust in central meat-processing operations. Finally, where safety is concerned I don’t think any level of government wants to create two classes of meat–they want the public to think that it all meets top safety requirements.

    Frankly, I can’t think of a fair and practical way to change the rules to get the desired result. Maybe more TPH inspections for the restaurants that opt to serve sub-71C burgers? The best case scenario is probably that at some point this rule is dropped as part of a larger reform of food service regulations. Right now my biggest issue is with the establishments (like the Burger Bar) which claim to pay careful attention to where their meat comes and yet aren’t in on the “secret” of the status quo.

    (BTW, nice website. I’ve enjoyed several of your posts.)

  7. [...] consistently seduced by the bistros, gastropubs, and general restaurants who are willing to subvert Ontario’s burger law and serve a “ground meat preparation” at my desired “medium-rare side of [...]

  8. I would only eat a burger medium rare under 3 circumstances,

    1) I know the chef, and it’s freshly ground beef only, and by freshly ground I mean someone has a popeye style forearm from grinding meat by hand all day.

    2) I ground it myself (as you know is most often the case)

    3) I was dead.

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