Who decides whether a fast-food hamburger is safe to eat? In California, much of the decision is left up to the restaurant chains.
The lack of regulation is noteworthy in the wake of illnesses in Washington state linked to contaminated, undercooked burgers at Jack in the Box restaurants. More than 250 people suffered severe diarrhea or stomach cramps, and at least one child died.
Unlike most other states, California doesn’t dictate how hamburger must be cooked to kill bacteria. Instead, each restaurant may choose a temperature that it believes is hot enough without rendering meat unpalatable.
A quick survey of fast-food restaurants reveals no universal agreement on which internal temperature (the temperature you get at home on a meat thermometer) is best. According to health officials and company sources, minimum internal temperatures of cooked burgers range from a low of 141 degrees at McDonald’s to a high of 165 degrees at Wendy’s.
Not every restaurant is willing to discuss cooking temperatures. In-N-Out Burgers Vice President of Quality, Friendliness and Cleanliness Carl Van Fleet declined to divulge cooking temperatures, saying that recipes are secret.
When it comes to killing E. coli 0157:H7 , the bacteria that struck people in Washington state, a few degrees can be crucial. Health experts there say that at an internal temperature of 140 degrees, 90% of the bacteria is killed. At 155 degrees, 99.9999% of it is destroyed.
Washington state officials said Jack in the Box had cooked the suspect burgers to an internal temperature of 140 degrees or less.
As the health crisis unfolded last week, Jack in the Box raised its minimum internal temperature to 155 degrees. This week, Carl’s Jr. followed, raising its minimum temperature to 155 degrees from 145 degrees as a precaution.
On Wednesday, citing the outbreak in Washington state, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration revised its recommended minimum internal temperature to 155 degrees from 140 degrees. The agency can’t force restaurants to comply, however.
Should California regulate cooking temperatures? Jim Barquest, supervisor of the Department of Health Services’ food unit, said officials are studying the question. For now, the department can only recommend that restaurants follow the FDA’s advice, he said.
That’s a rap: How do fast-food restaurants determine when hamburgers are cooked? Carl’s Jr. and Burger King say burgers are moved over a grill on an electronically controlled conveyor belt. Grill temperature and cooking time are predetermined to achieve the correct internal temperature.
At Wendy’s, where chefs cook by hand, the chain has set its cooking instructions to rap music. (“A grill set at two-five-oh with meat and cheese ready to go.”) Chefs who recite the rap while they work will cook hamburgers correctly, said Wendy’s vice president, Denny Lynch.
Representatives of fast-food chains acknowledge that no system is foolproof. Proper cooking depends on the amount of fat in a burger, the ice accumulated on frozen burgers and the shape of a burger. Wendy’s and Carl’s Jr. said they set their average temperatures high to allow for error.
In their investigation of Jack in the Box, for example, Washington state officials found that the burgers were not frozen flat. When placed on a grill, the concave side did not cook thoroughly. Bart Bartelson, technical expert with the Washington state Health Department, said Jack in the Box was ordered to add an extra pat with the spatula to its formal cooking procedure.
On hold: For thousands of Southern Californians, a legacy of this month’s torrential rainstorms was disrupted phone service. After the rains ended, water continued to sink into the ground, where it soaked underground cables. Regions served by aerial cable also had problems. Pacific Bell said that heat, wind and animals can wear down the rubber protecting overhead cables, leaving cracks for rainwater to seep through.
Through last week, Pacific Bell said that up to 200,000 residential customers in Los Angeles, Orange, San Bernardino and Riverside counties were without phone service on any given day.
But don’t look for a credit for lost service on your phone bill, said Audrie Krause of the consumer group TURN (Toward Utility Rate Normalization). Utilities aren’t required to compensate consumers for problems related to weather, natural disasters and other so-called acts of God.
With contaminated, undercooked hamburgers blamed for illness in three western states, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has recommended raising the minimum internal temperature to kill bacteria to 155 degrees from 140 degrees. Here’s what fast-food chains in California do now. Figures in degrees.
Minimum internal Average internal Chain temperature temperature McDonald’s 141 157 Burger King 150 160 Wendy’s 165 175 Carl’s Jr. 155 162 or172* Jack in the Box 155 NA** In-N-Out Burger NA** NA**
Note: * Carl’s Jr. average temperature depends on size.
** Not available
Sources: Company representatives, Washington state health officials.