If you have been paying attention to the news lately, you may have noticed some troubles with one of our big beef processors in Alberta. Beef shipped from one of the packers was found to carry the harmful form of E.coli bacteria. Every time there is an E. coli outbreak, everyone gets panicky about ground beef. First the recall, then the CFIA investigation, then the full-page article in the local paper telling us to cook the life out of our hamburgers. When this happens, restaurateurs panic. First, they want to determine that they aren’t holding any of the tainted product, but then, they have to deal with all the terrified clients. The slightest tinge of pink in the burger meat will mean that not only will the burger get sent back to the kitchen, but the guest will leave your restaurant believing that they won’t make it home alive.
There is always a lot of talk about the inspection process. There is discussion about government funding cuts or changes in policy. Economists will appear on late night news shows talking about the effects on the meat industry and the economies of western Canada. Vegans will say “I told you so!” and animal rights activists will use this as a platform to complain about the conditions in the feed lots. But ultimately, it all boils down to one question: Where do you get your ground beef from?
Once upon a time, your kindly neighbourhood butcher would bring in a whole side of beef. He would take the higher end cuts and sell them as steaks and roasts. Then he would take everything else and grind it for hamburger. The ground beef would contain bits of trim from any part of the steer but would have lots of meat from the shoulder, or chuck. In more recent memory, butchers stopped buying whole animals and would buy their beef already cut up, either in the primal cuts such as hips or loins, or in smaller cuts the sub-primals and ready-to-go cuts. Butchers would either buy bags of beef trim or they would specify certain cuts for ground beef. One of my favourite butchers grinds all his beef from 100% Angus Chuck, for example. Then, they would take this beef and grind it themselves. Most reputable butchers would grind meat two or more times each and every day to ensure the freshest product.
When beef is in its whole form, it has a long shelf life. In fact, connoisseurs of beef prefer beef that is well-aged. Most of the little microscopic critters that live on beef like to live on the surface. They might breed and grow, but they have limited scope. They can easily be killed off by by cooking. Anytime you cook a steak or roast, even if you are going to serve it rare, you will sear the outside and get this piece of meat to a very high temperature. Well over the 165F required to kill off any pathogens. The problem with ground beef, is that when you grind it, you take the pathogens from the surface of the meat and you mix them up into the middle of the ground beef. Now you have created a nice happy environment for the bacteria to grow on the inside of the ground meat. Then it is a matter of time, the longer the ground beef rests before being cooked, the more time the bacteria have to reproduce. So, to kill the bacteria, it’s not enough to sear the outside really well, you have to cook the inside really well too.
A few years ago, and I am showing my age, it was probably 20 years ago, the big meat packers wanted in on the ground meat business. They came up with a process to make ground beef safer and give it a longer shelf life. I’m not sure if they used laser beams or gamma rays or good old fashioned steam, but they basically pasteurized the carcasses on the surface without cooking the meat. This process would kill of the E. coli or any other harmful bacteria. Then they would grind the meat, cryovac it and stamp a best-before date on it that was about three weeks down the road. The next step was to send out armies of salespeople to convince the rest of the food world that this was the best and safest form of ground beef.
And it worked, until last month. Most restaurants and retailers of meat are buying beef already ground from the packer. Some of the supermarket chains are buying ground meat and running it through their own grinders so it looks like its fresh ground in store. The problem with this plan, Is that it doesn’t work. We really shouldn’t be buying beef that is ground two provinces away. We shouldn’t be eating ground beef that is a week or more old.
So, where should you get your ground? In a perfect world, we would all have meat grinders in our kitchens. Then we could grind our hamburger fresh and eat it medium rare. Failing that, you should find a butcher that grinds their own meat and does it daily. Find a real butcher, not some pimply faced kid who had a two hour meat cutting course from the major national chain he is working for, but a butcher who knows his products, cares about his product and cares about his customer. There is probably one in your neighbourhood. It is worthwhile to get to know your butcher. Ask him or her how when he ground the beef, ask him what cuts he used for the meat. A good butcher will have no secrets from you.
When you cook your hamburger, you don’t need to cook the life out of it. If I know the meat is really fresh I will cook burgers to medium rare. In general though you should cook burger meat to 165F. At this temperature, all pathogens will be killed. At 165, there will still be a little pink, but it will be safe. And your burger will still be juicy and tasty.
So, the problem is not that ground meat is inherently dangerous. The problem is that the meat industry has consolidated production into a few huge centers. Massive multinational corporations are now responsible for the safety of our food supply. And when the only motive is profit, and profit is determined by how quickly these companies can process their products, corners will be cut. And then, when there is a problem, like we saw recently, the problem won’t affect a couple hundred pounds of meat and a few dozen people, it will be in millions of pounds of meat effecting thousands of people.
So, don’t get freaked out. Don’t become a vegetarian. Don’t swear of hamburgers for ever. Do find a butcher you trust. Do buy fresh ground beef. And enjoy the simple pleasures of a really well made hamburger. Get grounded, know where your burger comes from.
Alexander Svenne is the food writer for Spectator Tribune and chef at Bistro 7 1/4. Follow him at @ChefAlex
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