Yesterday, we reported that, citing the threat of E. coli, the City of Westminster may make the extraordinary move of banning restaurants from serving rare and medium-rare hamburgers. The move stems from a court case brought on by central London restaurant Davy’s, which is fighting in High Court for the right to serve undercooked beef. Food-safety experts fear E. coli, which isn’t definitively destroyed at temperatures below 160 degrees, will sicken diners, while restaurateurs say that an imposition of strict guidelines will "destroy the burger industry." So, how rare is too rare? Butcher and Meat Hook co-owner Tom Mylan tells us we’re asking the wrong question.
So, is it stupid to ban rare and medium-rare burgers for fear of E. coli?
When you move to outlaw hamburgers because of E. coli, it’s a pretty clear sign that your food system is broken and you really need to start doing some heavier lifting rather than just pass some asinine piece of legislation that penalizes restaurants and eaters. If there’s E. coli present in your hamburgers, you can legislate to cook that burger to death, and you’re moving to make food more mediocre in a way. But anything that’s handled by the same person who touched the meat before it went on the grill to become incinerated, anything else they come into contact with still stands the chance of becoming contaminated.
So there should be more of a focus on general food safety rather than a burger ban.
If you’re going to a place that serves sketchy meat, it’s the contaminated salad that’s going to kill you, it’s not going to be the fucking hamburger.
There’s a stigma against rare and medium-rare burgers in Canada, where they are essentially "illegal." Why shouldn’t there be a real law on the books in England?
In England, they could pass a law, but what about enforcement? Enforcement is basically impossible. The idea of a ban like this is like putting a politically expedient Band-Aid on what amounts to be a gaping head wound.
You’re a butcher and you work within a more sustainable food system where you know where the meat you eat comes from and how the animal has been raised. Is there a general piece of advice you’d give or some sign to look out for when you’re ordering a burger at a place you don’t know?
I generally don’t go out and eat hamburgers at places where I don’t know someone or where their meat comes from, and that’s not because I’m afraid of E. coli or I’m some sort of super-pure Alice Waters type. It’s more like if you you’re not sure, that hamburger isn’t worth a shit. My favorite place to go is In-N-Out Burger, and the reason why In-N-Out is so fucking good is not because it puts magic flavor crystals in the meat or manufactures it in some weird, pink-slime-type factory somewhere in the Midwest hidden amongst the feedlot poop ponds or something. It’s that In-N-Out Burger sets up multiple distribution centers to supply a small cluster of restaurants. They bring in whole animals or whole muscle stuff, and they butcher it there and grind it fresh every day. They’re reducing their risk that way, but also, you need to have good meat to make a good burger.
That’s why In-N-Out says it might be hard to expand to the East Coast, because there’s no local distribution.
What should people be worried about if it’s not rare burgers?
There are other bacterium, and E. coli is everywhere. The real problem with it now is that producers feed their cattle things they shouldn’t eat, like corn, for example, that promotes excessive E. coli production. But the other thing that has implications for the future of humanity, really, is that these farm animals are getting subtherapeutic antibiotics, and that’s building up strains of antibiotic-resistant super-bacteria.
It’s the food system.
So, it’s not like, ‘Oh, I’d love to be as pure as you, Alice Waters and Tom Mylan and whatever.’ The point I’m trying to get across is that if we keep on doing animal husbandry the way we’ve been doing it for the last 30, 40, 50 years, there’s going to be some problems. Just watch Contagion. That’s all based on projections calculated by the mainframe in the bottom of the CDC, and it’s where we’re headed. And we know better. The companies that do this know better, but they keep doing business as usual.