So, what is the big deal? President Obama ordered a medium-well burger for himself and the VP, and ordered medium burgers for the press – in a restaurant with a spotty food safety record that does not use, or may not even have, a thermometer. Forgoing the phrase “teachable moment” for a bit, I would like to get right to the “meat” of the matter. What Obama did was foolish – in the view of many food safety experts – but it is something that many consumers do every day; they order a burger from their favorite restaurant or cook it themselves on the backyard grill.

Food safety professionals inside and outside government will tell you that medium or medium-well means nothing in the food safety world – temperature is the key. Pink or brown color is not a good indicator of “doneness.” Temperature on the inside of the burger (at several places) of 155 to 160 degrees (rules vary a bit state to state) is the only way to assure that the burger is safe. Yet less that 2% of consumers use or own a thermometer. Restaurants are required to have thermometers, but not necessarily use them. So, why do consumers – including the President – ignore the advice of experts who are trying to protect them from the bacteria and viruses lurking in their cheeseburgers that can sicken or kill them or their children?

What consumers believe, including the President apparently, is what they hear every day from Government officials and the Beef Industry – “Our Food Supply Is The Safest In the World”. Compared to China? Great! Clearly, any food safety message is missed, because of lack of honesty (hamburger really may contain animal feces that can sicken or kill you!) and lack of education (why don’t we teach kids how to cook safely in addition to teaching them to wear seatbelts and shun smoking?)

So, what is a President to do – avoid hamburgers? Well, I do (and so does my family) ever since the Jack in the Box E. coli O157:H7 Outbreak of 1993 that sickened nearly 600, caused acute kidney failure in 50 and killed four children – but that is just me.

Full disclosure, I am a trial lawyer who represents victims of foodborne illness. I have seen too much misery, and yes, death, caused by failures in food production at every stage of the food supply. If you do not think our food supply is dangerous, then just open a newspaper, turn on the radio or TV or surf the Internet. Foodborne illness outbreaks linked to all types of food (including hamburger) are nearly a daily occurrence. However, the Government and Industry keep telling us its safe and we seem to believe it.

So, what is a President to do?

First call the head of Food Safety Inspection Services (actually, a spot yet to be filled) and ask him why there is cow feces in hamburger meat in the first place. Also, while you have him on the phone, ask about Salmonella, Listeria, MRSA and all the other bugs that may have been in the hamburger you ate the other day.

Next, be honest with the American Public. With 76,000,000 foodborne illnesses cases yearly, 325, 000 hospitalizations and 5,000 deaths, our food supply might be safer than China’s – but it is not safe enough.

Third, put food safety on the “front burner” and turn up the heat. It is time that we commit to the American Public to get animal feces out of our food. How to do it:

A. Revise food regulations to criminalize manufacturers who sell food that poisons consumers. I am not suggesting the “China Method,” but it is time to impose stiff fines, and jail sentences for businesses that kill kids;

B. Give tax credits and other incentives to businesses that invest in safe food methods and technology. Remind me, how many billions have we given the banks? Perhaps it is time to invest in those who will actually invest in us;

C. Increase the surveillance of foodborne diseases. Right now, for every one person counted in an outbreak, we miss another 20 to 40. This causes delays in determining what food product is sickening our neighbors allowing hundreds of others to become sick before we figure out what product to pull;

D. Fully fund Local, State and Federal Health and Food Inspectors and give them the legislative and financial tools to get the job done.

The “teachable moment” is simply that the hamburger that the President ordered on Monday should not put him at risk for getting sick on Thursday. That is true for all of us and all the food that we eat. The “teachable moment” has passed, the real question is, “did we learn anything?’

  • D. L. Whitehead

    There could be a popular conservative radio talk show host that hopes President Obama gets E-coli poisoning…
    That aside, you are correct. It was a teachable moment!

  • Bill: Just some thoughts and some references below. Maybe a little rambling and not quite as didactic as is really necessary to answer your questions decisively
    These are the cooking standards from the 2005 Food Code for comminuted raw meats
    Temperatures measured in center of meat
    63 (145) 3 minutes
    66 (150) 1 minute
    70 (158) I do not know if President Obama will be swayed by the info there, or how effective this is since there is no validation studies for any of these consumer level approaches, like this or “Thermy”, the USDA effort to get thermometers in use by consumers.
    But, something has changed as we do not see the types of EHEC outbreaks we use to see with ground beef, although sporadic incidence of hemorrhagic colitis still happens, and there are the “TOPPS” outbreak scenarios we can expect, it looks like things may have improved a little with this bug.
    Also a big issue to consider, in January 2007 Canadian bio-pharmaceutical company Bioniche announced it had developed a bovine vaccine capable of reducing O157:H7 in cattle by over 99%.[19]
    Why is this not in use? This would be a far better and easier thing to do to protect the public or trying to get all restaurants to just say no when somebody orders a burger at medium, which is about 145 degrees.
    Roy E Costa, R.S., M.S./M.B.A. Public Health Sanitarian Consultant Environ Health Associates, Inc 1.386.734.5187

  • Carl Custer

    A few thoughts:
    “Keep the feces out of our meat.”
    A good start but it ain’t just the feces, ruminates shed pathogenic Escherichia coli from both ends. So the cattle heads can be as bad as the bungs.
    Vaccine for E. coli O157:H7
    Yea! . . . But, with improved analytical technology the cases of Non-O157:H7* are rising. So, food safety scientists and administrators need to keep their eye on the prize. Public health safety from all food-borne pathogenic organisms.
    *Shiga Toxin-producing Escherichia coli (STEC) include the group of Enterohemorrhagic Escherichia coli (EHEC). STEC and EHEC include the many strains of E. coli O157:H7. The media jargon E.col include many harmless, beneficial and dangerous strains.
    Oh, and salmonellosis has still killed more people per year than the sexier STECs.
    Validating a process in a test tube versus the grill.
    Excellent point – but – the processes have worked because of the 2D safety margin – and – the very low prevalence of meat with high numbers of pathogens. Thus, it isn’t just consumers ought to cook their food thoroughly, but the industry must keep up their programs to maintain the low prevalence of pathogens in their products.
    Which brings up cross contamination:
    Keeping the prevalence of pathogen contamination in food low (or absent) is critical because of poor consumer practices in handling meat and poultry products. On many occasions at outdoor cooking events, I have intervened because a person tried to (or did) use a raw food implement on cooked food. These consumers were not dumb, they included an electrical engineer, an economist, a lawyer, a software programmer, and a food technologist.
    Thermometer use low:
    Boy howdy, could I tell some tales. I’ve bought over a dozen Comark PDT300 digital thermometers (Pete Snyder has the best prices) over the past two years and handed all but two out to friends and relatives. The first gift was to a nurse who wondered if a meat loaf was done. Whipped out a new, still-packaged, Comark from my tank bag, showed the internal temperature was 175°F and gave her the thermometer. Sadly, after a year, I found that several of the thermometers were gathering dust in the bottoms of drawers.
    The food code still allows undercooking by request.
    For an eye-opener, Google: menu. Then add one or more of the following words:
    Cannibal Sandwich , Yuk Hwe (Yuk Hwae, Yuk Hoe), Kifto, Larb, Carpaccio, or the more familiar Tartare.
    Undercooked indeed! How about raw?
    How about a program to minimize pathogen contamination for meat products that will be served raw? Something akin to raw oysters including source, handling, and consumer advisory would be better than the status quo.

  • Marymary

    I thought “Oh no!” when I heard President Obama order his burger. Most people have very little understanding of food safety, no matter what their level of formal education. And what do consumers see on TV and read in magazines? Chefs saying that the best burger is cooked to medium and magazine articles (such as one in a major women’s magazine a few years ago), saying that an occasional rare burger is no big deal, etc.
    As for validating correct cooking procedures that will lead to safe temperatures, I can almost guarantee that a small, local food establishment has not verified any procedure for size of patties, length of cooking time, temperature of grill, etc., that would assure safe temperatures for its hamburgers. It is sad to say, but my own experience has been that the thermometer is there to show to the health inspector or internal auditor and otherwise rarely gets used. Chain restaurants may have lots of policies and procedures, but in too many cases, those policies and procedures are not followed.
    Very interesting comments by all.

  • Kathleen in NYS

    Bill, Thank you for writing about Obama and his burger. I was disgusted by that choice for lunch. After reading and researching good health, my personal options to reduce global warming, and after looking into faces with eyes I “went vegan” at the ripe age of 57 and never looked back. I don’t worry about interior temperature and do not think I need a thermometer. Also, pleased by Marymary’s comment in re to women’s magazine/s. They are being run by the meat and dairy industries, it seems to me. Token vegetarian recipe once per issue, maybe, but lots of beef and butter and heart disease. Thank you all.

  • My understanding is that e coli is on the surface area of the meat, is this correct? Meaning its from the unclean handling and prep, feces exposure, and isn’t present inside the meat prior to slaughter. If this is so, then in theory, if I purchase my own quality meat and clean and remove surface area prior to grinding, my chances of e coli are slim to none, therefore I could choose to cook the meat to a lesser doneness. This is why I believe the tv chefs talk about medium burgers, etc., because these chefs have kitchens and standards that are best case. Therefore it would be the responsibility of the individual ordering to take this into account and order appropriately. While I agree strongly with food safety, I also believe in educated choices, and the risks that go with that. I would rather the meat sourcing and prep be held to a higher standard than lowest common denominator that can apply to the filthiest meat.

  • Brett Mills

    I recently read a food bloogers enrty about dinner with other food bloogers at an American owned Burger Chain called The Counter. They have a resturant in Sydney, Australia. Photographs of the food were included and I was dismayed to see pictures of hamburgers sliced in half showing raw mince meat in a large portion of the hamburger pattie. I posted a entry on the web site warning about the dangers of eating raw mince however it was removed the next day. It was replaced by all praise from so called food bloogers in favour of eating raw beef mince. Amazing, you can warn people but they still don’t listen. To see the photographs and ignorant comments the URL is: