The fact that contestants in Uncle Fletch's Hamburger Cook-off felt free to ignore the USDA's guidelines, and that the contest was willing to accept the liability, shows how low confidence in the USDA's credibility has fallen. The USDA says that hamburgers are unsafe to eat unless they're cooked to an internal temperature of 160 degrees Fahrenheit, a temperature on the black, outer limits of well done.
"I can't eat a hamburger that's been cooked to 160 degrees," says Houston celebrity chef Robert Del Grande. "Well-done ground meat has a nasty, swampy smell."
Del Grande buys hamburger patties for Cafe Annie from Allen Brothers, a premium meat purveyor that also supplies the restaurant's steaks. The company grinds meat and freezes it into patties, then performs tests on a sample patty. The batch isn't released until the sample tests negative for E. coli.
"I don't know why more meat companies can't do it that way," says Del Grande. Since the meat has already been tested for E. coli, Cafe Annie confidently serves burgers cooked as rare as you want them.
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"I like medium-rare hamburgers," said Phil Romano, the founder of the Fuddrucker's hamburger chain, over the phone. Romano observed that ultimately the marketplace determines how we cook our hamburgers, not the USDA. "If people don't think cooking hamburgers to 160 degrees is a good idea, then it's not a good idea."
Food industry professionals point out that the USDA's hamburger cooking guidelines are really nothing more than a cover-your-ass cop-out. The government agency is protecting the meat industry from lawsuits by recommending we burn our burgers to a crisp instead of making them do their job: protecting consumers by cleaning up the American meat-packing industry.
Granted, progress is being made. Fred Angulo, a veterinarian with the Center for Disease Control in Washington, cites statistics indicating there was a 42 percent decline in E. coli incidents between 1996 and 2004. "All indications we have are the beef industry made remarkable investments in their processing plants to contribute to this decline," Angulo told the press.
But we all look forward to the day when the USDA tells us it's safe to eat medium-rare burgers again.