Yesterday I got an e-mail from Kristy Baumgart, an epidemiologist with the St. Charles Department of Community Health:
I enjoy your weekly reviews! However, I would like to point out that on your review of Cheeburger, Cheeburger, you griped about not being able to order a medium-rare burger. As someone who works in public health, I can assure you the restaurant was doing you a favor in not serving a medium-rare burger. Hamburger meat is not the "clean" cut of meat that steak is. It's mixed with several parts of the cow, often containing the dangerous E.coli 0157:H7 bacteria. Fully cooking hamburger meat will kill the bacteria, but if you consume meat that is not thoroughly cooked, you are setting yourself up for a nasty infection.
Ground meats are riskier [than an undercooked steak or chop], because the contaminated meat surface is broken into small fragments and spread throughout the mass. The interior of a raw hamburger usually does contain bacteria, and is safest if cooked well done.
So you can't really blame Cheeburger Cheeburger for protecting customers (and, let's be honest, themselves) from the consequences of food-borne disease. And I should have been clearer in my review. My problem isn't with Cheeburger Cheeburger's policy, per se. My problem is that such a policy is necessary in the first place.
If I want to assume the risk of eating undercooked meat -- or sushi, for that matter, or a raw oyster or even two eggs over-easy -- fully aware what that risk entails, shouldn't I be able to do so?
After all, Cheeburger Cheeburger does let me order a medium burger, even though there's still a risk of bacterial infection. (McGee: "Most but not all microbes are killed in this range.") And the fine print on Cheeburger Cheeburger's menu includes the standard government-issue disclaimer: "Consuming raw or undercooked meats, poultry, seafood, shellfish or eggs may increase the consumer's risk of food borne illness."
Of course, in our safety-conscious, lawsuit-happy society, it's not so easy. (I was going to make a joke here about restaurants letting you sign a liability waiver, but then I found this article.) Nor can I assume everyone who enjoys a medium-rare burger understands the risk. Kristy Baumgart told me she's busiest in the summer because it's backyard-barbecue season.
My griping aside, I think the larger issue here is fascinating. When it comes to what we eat, how much protection is too much? Consider the New York City trans fat ban. I can't fault lawmakers for wanting us to eat healthier. But did the city really need a law to compel all chefs and bakers and food manufacturers to eliminate all trans fats? And can such a law really be enforced?
Let me know what you think. As for me, I'm going to skip the risky foods today and relax with a glass of milk and a peanut-butter sandwich.