Better buy an extra bag or five of charcoal for Fourth of July weekend, because science has arrived to totally ruin your barbecue. A team of Canadian researchers says they were heating up strains of E. coli that they found at meat-processing plants (because why not?) when they stumbled upon a disconcerting mutant strain they describe as “very, very heat-resistant.” For context, the USDA recommends people cook ground beef to 160 degrees, but also notes bacteria subjected to 140-degree heat typically die “in less than a minute.” This new E. coli strain, by contrast, purportedly thrives in 140-degree temperature for over an hour, mocking humans’ fire.
Thank a University of Alberta grad student for finding it — she alerted professors to a strain that, bizarrely, just would not die under heat normally required for medium-rare doneness. A skeptical prof (who turned into one of the lead researchers) says she replied, “Wrong, E. coli doesn’t do that,” then had to eat her words after repeat tests showed that, yeah, this crazy strain actually does.
The team has now identified 16 genes that make this strain unique, and they say the subset only exists in 2 percent of all E. coli variants. Lead researcher Lynn McMullen warns that, regardless, “There’s the potential that a pathogen could survive the standard cooking protocols for ground beef,” which might mean needing to change the government guidelines for cooking meat. It’s worth noting the 2 percent figure includes E. coli strains that are dangerous as well as harmless, so things could be worse. This may end up being the summer of the dry Trump-approved hamburger.