The Vermont Department of Health is investigating a cluster of E. coli infections among Vermont residents. At least seven people may be sick with this illness, which is caused by shiga toxin-producing bacteria (STEC).
Worthy Burger voluntarily closed for five days beginning on September 17, 2015, but has stated that the closure was for “mechanical issues”. Still, the restaurant changed its vendors under recommendation from public health officials after the outbreak was announced.
The Health Department also recommended that Worthy Burger cooks make sure hamburgers are cooked to 155°F as measured with a food thermometer and held at that temperature for at least 15 seconds. The restaurant was also supposed to do a thorough cleaning, and warn customers that eating raw or undercooked meat or seafood can be dangerous.
A few months ago my husband and I were eating at a restaurant in St. Paul, Minnesota. I noticed the above warning posted on the menu at the bottom. It states “May contain raw, or undercooked meats, poultry, seafood, shellfish or eggs. Consuming raw, or undercooked meats, poultry, seafood, shellfish or eggs may increase your risk of foodborne illness, especially if you have medical conditions. We will make every effort to accommodate special dietary requirements.”
But when my husband tried to order one of their burgers well done, he was told that the chef could not recommend that the hamburger be cooked that way because the filling would blow out. The waiter did not mention any food safety concerns about cooking the burger less than well done. At my urging, my husband ordered steak instead.
According to the Penn State Food Safety Blog, Worthy Burger states that “the burgers will be service pink in the middle.” One of the reviews on Trip Advisor that the Penn State blogger read stated that all four burgers prepared for one customer were red in the middle.
We don’t know if Worthy Burger has always prepared their burgers that way, or if they had warnings posted on the menu (if people even pay attention to them.) But it’s clear that, once again, undercooked burgers have caused a serious food poisoning outbreak.
E. coli bacteria is present in all ruminant animals, such as cows and goats. But those animals do not get sick from this bacteria because they don’t have the genes to be susceptible to it. When the animal is slaughtered, the surface of steaks and roasts can harbor the bacteria. When that meat is ground into hamburger, the pathogenic bacteria is spread all through the product. Then, if a burger isn’t cooked to 160°F (or 155°F with holding), the E. coli bacteria can survive and can make you sick when you eat it.
The Vermont Health Department has warned doctors to be on the lookout for any patients presenting with the symptoms of an E. coli infection. They say that the risk for more cases does exist. We don’t know where the beef that caused this outbreak came from, or if improper handling or cross-contamination in the kitchen was the issue. E. coli infections can be spread person-to-person.
The symptoms of an E. coli infection include severe abdominal cramps, diarrhea that is watery and/or bloody, a mild fever, and possible nausea and vomiting. This illness can be life-threatening, especially if it progresses to hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS).
The symptoms of HUS include pale skin, tiredness, and irritability. Small, unexplained bruises or bleeding from the nose or mouth may occur. Urine output can decrease markedly, and there may be blood in the urine. If any of these symptoms appear, it’s important to get immediate medical care.
To protect yourself and your family, treat raw meat, especially raw ground meat, as a health hazard until it is fully cooked. Be careful to avoid cross-contamination between the meat and uncooked foods. Always wash your hands well after you handle uncooked meat. Cook food to a safe internal temperature as measured by a food thermometer. Do not order rare or medium burgers when you eat out. And wash utensils, plates, and work surfaces that come into contact with raw meat thoroughly with soap and water.