Diners may want to take a second to think about how they’d like their next burger cooked the next time they go out to eat.
A recent study by North Carolina State University finds that restaurant staff do not effectively communicate to customers about the risks associated with eating undercooked meat—particularly hamburgers. Often the information provided to customers is inaccurate and contradicts science-based information customers need to make informed food-safety decisions.
“We wanted to know how well restaurant servers and menus communicated with customers about these risks, specifically in the context of beef hamburgers,” Ben Chapman, co-author of the study and an associate professor at North Carolina State University, said in a statement.
The study focused on beef hamburgers because consuming undercooked ground beef has been linked to a lot of foodborne illness outbreaks, including outbreaks related primarily to Shiga toxin-producing E. coli.
“Secret shoppers” were sent into 265 full-service, sit-down restaurants in seven different regions around the U.S. At each restaurant the trained patrons recorded how the restaurant staff communicated about risk when they ordered one well-done hamburger and one medium-rare hamburger to go. They also observed whether the menu included clear and accurate risk information.
“We try to actually match what people do versus what they say they do because people will say anything on a survey,” Chapman said. “We’ve looked at cooking shows; observed handwashing and cross-contamination in commercial kitchens; examined hand hygiene during a norovirus outbreaks and others. What people actually do is the difference between an enjoyable meal and a foodborne illness.
“For example, did the server mention risks associated with undercooked meat when the shopper ordered? If not, the shopper would ask about the risk of getting sick, and then record whether the wait staff responded with clear, accurate information.”
The results showed that 25 percent of restaurants wouldn’t sell an undercooked hamburger to the secret shoppers but 77 percent of the restaurants that would sell a medium-rare hamburger gave customers unreliable information about food safety.
Ellen Thomas, a food safety scientist at RTI International and lead author of the study who worked on the project while a Ph.D. student at NC State, explained the results.
“Servers said that meat was safe because it was cooked ‘until the juices ran clear’—which is totally unreliable,” she said in a statement. “Those 77 percent didn’t mention things like cooking meat to the appropriate temperature—either 155 degrees Fahrenheit for 15 seconds or 160 degrees Fahrenheit for instant kill.
“The indicator of safety most widely reported by servers was the color of the burger and that’s also not a reliable indicator at all,” Thomas added. “Time and temperature are all that matter. An undercooked, unsafe burger can be brown in the middle and a safely cooked burger can still be red or pink in the center.”
While nearly all of the restaurant menus complied with federal guidance, servers often contradicted the information on the menu. The researchers also found that chain restaurants fared much better than independent restaurants at having servers offer reliable risk information.
“That’s not surprising,” Chapman said. “Large chains implement standardized training across all outlets for servers in order to protect their brand and reduce the likelihood of being implicated in a foodborne illness outbreak. That’s bad for business.
“This study tells us that servers aren’t good risk communicators,” Chapman concluded. “We encourage consumers to ask food-safety questions, but they should probably ask a manager.”
The lack of communication can be contributed to the fact that front-line staff in restaurants generally have a high turnover with relatively low wages, while servers are often focused on providing patrons with a positive experience.
All 50 states have adopted some version of the Food & Drug Administration’s Model Food Code, which requires restaurants to tell customers about risks associated with undercooked meat and poultry products.
The study, which was published in the Journal of Food Protection, can be viewed here.