Martha, Martha, Martha…

Following this post about an outbreak of E. coli O157 at a daycare, I received a few emails asking thoughtful questions about food safety. One in particular asked about what food manufacturers are doing to keep their products safe, and what public health officials are doing to educate the public about how to properly handle and cook food. For the latter, I replied that we’re doing what we can, but that it’s difficult to reach people and get them to listen to advice on a topic where many people already feel they have enough education (I mean, food preparation and cooking isn’t exactly rocket science, right? Why should you take the time out of your day to listen to a public health professional about how to do it their way, when your way is working just fine?) A segment on the morning news made it even more obvious to me why our efforts to educate all too often seem to be futile.

I mentioned yesterday that my son was sick and home from school. He was feeling better last night, but I kept him home a bit late today just to make sure he was still fine this morning. Meanwhile, I killed an hour or so flipping through the morning news shows. The Today show had a cooking segment with Martha Stewart on BBQ’ing great hamburgers. So Martha put a burger on the grill, and the anchor asked her, “how long do you cook that for?”

Martha’s reply? “For a rare burger, about 3 minutes on a side.”

Ground beef. Martha Stewart, cooking icon, telling viewers that they can cook it rare. No mention of using a food thermometer to be sure that the internal temperature is up to 160 degrees F in order to kill any contaminating bacteria. No mention that eating such a burger rare increases one’s risk of developing a food-borne illness. Nothing.

This is why public health officials bang their heads against the wall. Who has more influence–your local public health department, already understaffed and underfunded, trying to get the word out about safely BBQ’ing this summer, or Martha Stewart with 5 minutes on the Today show, telling everyone how to cook a rare hamburger?

Image from

15 Replies to “Martha, Martha, Martha…”

  1. Whenever I hear about people eating rare hamburger, I remember an anecdote told to me by a public health inspector in a town I won’t name, about a local woman who had both feet and one hand amputated because of repeat E. coli infections. Her favorite food: rare hamburger. And she refused to stop eating it.

    Needless to say, I don’t eat rare hamburger!

    Maybe they just need to get graphic about this stuff like they did about cigarettes?

  2. I confess… I will record her show because I love to cook, garden and do crafts (though I hate housework). But I often cringe when I see some of the general disregard for basic cooking safety. The fact that she has little bowls of salt and pepper she grabs with her fingers drives me nuts (plus all the salt she uses… ACK!!!). Then I am not so sure she properly washes her hands (or the cutting board) after handling chicken!

    I am amused when a guest will make it a point to go over and wash their hands, while she seems to look a bit irritated at the extra time they are taking.

  3. On the Dian Reams show on NPR yesterday, a so called nutritionist said you should only drink raw milk. Her logic was that pasturization denatures lypase (we make this already in our bodies.) As an avid BBQ’r no ground beef will be pulled before its done. Alton Brown has a great show/dvd on this topic.

  4. How about steak tartare, sashimi beef or sashimi chicken?

    I’ve eaten them all and completely without trouble, but only in countries, like France and Japan, where I trust the food to be safe.

    Fact is there is nothing intrinsically wrong with raw meat – just so long as the preparation and storage is clean and safe. So France and Japan (for raw chicken) are safe, but the USA is not.

    Which raises several questions, why is the US not safe, and who should bear the cost of food safety. Is it for the consumer to make a choice between over-cooked leather on the one hand, and possible disease on the other? Or should the providers act responsibly, and be forced to do so if necessary.

    I think it’s clear that much of the food preparation in the modern world, at least outside of those countries such as Japan and France which have retained their traditional foodchains, is now factory-driven and generally speaking unhealthy, of very poor quality and focussed more on low cost that healthy results.

    So as a society there’s a clear choice. Do we insist that all consumers educate themselves as to what’s good for them, consigning them to eating overcooked rubbish, and blaming them should they choose overprocessed junk that is marketed 24 hours a day; or do we insist as a society on proper controls being imposed on the food processors and vendors, which may entail higher costs.

    Personally I think this is a choice we can make as a society, rather than a purely technical one. If we leave it to technical grounds we will simply get more over-processed, non-nutritious factory food with all the consequences for obesity and general community health that that entails.

  5. I’m sure Martha can well afford to have hunderds of low-paid frazzled lackeys picking the bacteria off her burgers one by one using tweezers, but we regular folk aren’t so blessed.

    James is right that there is nothing intrinsically wrong with eating raw meat, other than that it’s rather bland and needs a lot of ketchup (catsup?). The problem comes with our techniques to process, transport and store. Here in good old North America we expect two things from our food…to be plentiful and to be there quick. Sometimes that conflicts with it being tasty or safe, but that’s what chemical additives are for.

  6. I’m not excusing her, because she was speaking to the public, but it’s likely that Martha grinds her own meat, thereby mitigating the chance of infestation.

  7. Our food is, largely, safe, but nothing is perfect. If she’d been cooking steak and mentioned how to cook it rare, that wouldn’t have been a problem, as contamination remains on the outside of the meat and is quickly killed during cooking. The problem comes in with ground beef that can be exposed to organisms during the griding process, which distributes them throughout the meat. As Tim mentioned, perhaps Martha grinds her own meat (and sanitizes it first?) and doesn’t think about these things, but Average Joe picks up his ground beef at the supermarket, and it’s much harder to say what controls have been put into place regarding safety (and how effective they were). Inspections of both farms and food processing and packaging facilities have helped, but nothing is perfect, and the problem with things like E. coli O157 is that it takes such an incredibly small amount of bacteria–as few as 100 individual bacteria in adults, and even fewer in children–to cause disease. Contamination at a level that low may be missed on inspections, but cooking it properly will kill the organisms.

    I think it’s up to individuals to decide how much risk they want to assume for the food they eat and I’m not trying to deprive anyone of their rare hamburger (I personally think the idea of it is rather nasty, but to each his own…), but it’s just disheartening for me to hear Stewart plug cooking a hamburger rare without any mention of what health officials consider proper cooking. E. coli O157 alone causes about 73,000 infections a year in the US; we’re not talking small potatoes here.

  8. I’ve eaten sunny side up or soft boiled eggs, all manner of sushi, ceviche, tartare, raw oysters and the like for as long as I can remember. Used to eat raw (completely uncooked) hamburger as a kid in small volumes (much to my parents’ dismay — and I wouldn’t let my daughter do it now.) Maybe I’ve got a combination of a strong stomach, a good nose (I am damned picky about the smell of my food and the cleanliness of my kitchen) and just plain luck, but I haven’t had any issues. Of course going from DINK to single income, the amount of high quality meat and fish that I can afford has gone way down, limitting exposure to a few times a year (well, except for the eggs; but even then, when I cook for my daughter, I eat well cooked scrambled eggs more often than not these days — easier to do a family sized batch than cook my own.)


    … but it’s just disheartening for me to hear Stewart plug cooking a hamburger rare without any mention of what health officials consider proper cooking.

    And I agree 100% with that statement. There is a difference between giving necessary information about risks of eating undercooked food and the abstinence only approach.

    Dave S:

    James is right that there is nothing intrinsically wrong with eating raw meat, other than that it’s rather bland and needs a lot of ketchup (catsup?).

    Good God man! Have you no palate? Ketchup? Cretin.

  9. I like Miracle Whip on hot dogs.

    😉 I generally don’t have strong opinions about condiments, but good rare/raw beef has a wonderful flavor and ketchup is too strong for it (less than good beef should be fed to the dog.) Miracle Whip on a hot dog? When my wife doesn’t know what she want me to cook for dinner, I usually suggest okra with Miracle Whip — maybe I’ll try your idea next time to get her to commit to something.

  10. Steak Tartare is great, but ketchup would make it rather pointless. Try mixing it with coarse ground pepper and an egg yolk – yummy.

    I agree with James here – in a country with good food safety like Japan I have no problem eating raw meat, fish or eggs. American beef, well, frankly I don’t touch it raw or cooked. I don’t want to eat meat from a place that allows the use of growth hormones and antibiotics for faster growth. And when their government actually outlaws slaughterhouses from testing their meat for diseases (like their customers want), it starts to smell more than a little of a coverup. If the meat is as safe as they say, why is testing it outlawed?

  11. And when their government actually outlaws slaughterhouses from testing their meat for diseases (like their customers want), it starts to smell more than a little of a coverup. If the meat is as safe as they say, why is testing it outlawed?

    Can you source that? I’ve never heard anyone say it’s outlawed, and if that’s the case, then I know of many places that are breaking the law, because they do indeed test for a variety of contaminants.

  12. I believe Janne is referring to the Creekstone Farms case. They wanted to do their own BSE testing for the Japanese market and the USDA refused on the grounds that only the Ames lab is certified to do the test.

    I’d agree with choose your risk philosophy, but most people, including posters here, seem to be equating e. coli O157 with ordinary listeria/salmonella type risks.

  13. Hey, sorry if I sounded flippant or advicey about being graphic about E. coli – you’re right, public health types never can win, because if you cry wolf soon enough, the wolf never hurts anybody so of course that means wolves aren’t dangerous.

    I think we take it a bit more seriously in Canada because we remember Walkerton but I’m sure if that broadcast made it up here, it didn’t help matters.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *