Rare Burgers Get Rarer As Restaurants React To Outbreak

There won't be a warning label on the bun. And the customer won't have to sign a liability waiver - at least not yet.

But it looks like it's every rare-burger eater for himself, at least in these early days following the outbreak of E. coli poisoning linked to contaminated hamburger.

That's because restaurateurs are trying to satisfy customer tastes, serve safe food and avoid lawsuits. For some, "well done" will be the standard no matter what the customer prefers. Others are willing, on request, to serve burgers less than "well done."

And some aren't sure just how much they have to cook their meat, despite a new state requirement for higher meat temperatures - a rule change several say they didn't know about until the recent food-poisoning outbreak.

The new state regulation requires restaurants to cook burgers to an internal temperature of 155 degrees (which leaves no pink meat) - unless, as the rule allows, a customer asks that the meat be undercooked or even raw. The E. coli bacteria is usually killed by thorough cooking.

So in a sense, it's up to the you. If you want to sink your teeth into a rare burger, you'll have to order it that way. But some places may refuse to serve it.

If you do get sick after knowingly ordering undercooked food, nobody's sure who is legally responsible.

Red Robin used to stake its reputation on decidedly pink, juicy "gourmet" hamburgers. Its policy was to cook burgers medium rare, unless the customer specified otherwise.

Not now, says Jeff Jacobsen, regional kitchen manager. The Red Robin customer always will be asked how they want it cooked.

To make sure, the restaurant's ordering system will accept an order only if cooking preference is indicated, he said.

And what if the customer orders it rare and then gets sick from undercooked food?

"It seems to me if the customer is a free agent and well informed and wants to run the risk of exposure to that bacteria because the burger is rare . . . and he then gets the bacteria, then I would think it would be the customer's responsibility," said Dennis McMahon, senior deputy prosecutor for King County, who says his opinion shouldn't be taken as legal advice.

Attorney Robert Kraft, whose law firm is representing two people who are suing Jack in the Box after allegedly eating tainted meat, disagreed: "I think it's the restaurant's responsibility to provide a fit product. And I don't think the customer can waive the responsibility of the restaurant to do so."

There are practical problems. How does a restaurant prove the customer requested it rare? Will the customer have to sign a written waiver?

Questions about legal liability aside, some restaurant people are still unclear over the new rule. Jacobsen at Red Robin pointed out it was the contaminated meat, not the new temperature rule, that prompted his restaurant's new policy.

Jacobsen also was not sure the temperature regulation applied to all types of restaurants.

According to the Seattle-King County Department of Public Health, it applies to all food-service establishments which serve food to the public with or without charge.

Jacobsen said that to his knowledge no health official formally has approached the corporation about its cooking policies, although an inspector advised at least one Red Robin outlet to cook its burgers more fully.

He'd like more direction. And whatever temperature the health department insists on, "that's what we'll do. . . . The customer is the primary concern."

Tracey Driflot, a senior environmental health specialist with the Health Department, said officials will ask Red Robin not to always make the customer decide. All customers may not be educated on the hazards of undercooked meat, she said. Instead, the restaurant will be encouraged to adopt a policy of cooking all burgers to 155 degrees, unless the customer instructs otherwise.

It's a small but important difference, she said.

Other restaurants' reaction has been mixed. Many already were cooking "well done." But they've reminded their staffs of proper cooking temperatures and food-handling procedures.

For 40 years, said Jeff Ward, corporate administrator for The BurgerMaster, "it's been in our employee manual that we make hamburgers until they're brown in the middle, cooked completely."

It used to be that the restaurant reluctantly would cook a burger medium rare if the customer asked. But now "I think we're going to rethink that," Ward said.

At McDonald's restaurants "our internal meat temperatures have always been much higher than standard," said Betty Dreher, marketing supervisor for the regional office. Immediately after the posioning outbreak, Anthony's Homeport restaurants called in the Health Department to doublecheck their cooking and handling procedures.

"We discovered that we were fine," said Tom Diller, director of operations.

Anthony's always has temperature-tested food and cooked burgers thoroughly, unless the customer wanted otherwise.

But now customers won't be able to get an undercooked burger, he said.

"As of today," Diller said, "we cook our burgers to 155 and we're not comfortable cooking them less . . . It's too much of a health hazard."

At the Sheraton Hotel, which operates two restaurants, customers still are asking for rare burgers and they'll get them, said the hotel's executive chef, Robert Neroni.

Neroni said he bases the decision on consultations with the Health Department and, especially, on the quality of his fresh-ground meat and the way the meat is handled from the supplier to his refrigerator and grill and to the plate.

The Sheraton always will ask the customer how he wants his burger cooked. But if he or she can't decide, Neroni said, his staff will suggest medium - approximately 140 degrees. Officials at the county Health Department deny giving him the OK to recommend hamburger cooking temperatures lower than 155 degrees. When it comes to the potential for contamination from E. coli, the regulation does not differentiate between fresh meat and frozen, says the department's Driflot.