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Restaurant Ground Beef Handling and Cooking

This page shows the study purpose, design, results, conclusions, and recommendations in plain language for the EHS-Net project titled Ground Beef Handling and Cooking Practices in Restaurants in Eight States.

The findings and recommendations from this project are also in fact sheet format [PDF - 257 KB].

Citations for more EHS-Net publications are available by Study Topic or by Citation.

Photo beef patties on a cutting board.

Study Problem

E. coli, a germ often found in raw ground beef, causes many foodborne illnesses each year. Hamburgers made from ground beef are often the source of these germs. These germs can make people sick if burgers are undercooked (not cooked to a high enough temperature to kill the germs). These germs can also make people sick if they get into other food or onto other surfaces (cross contamination).

We don’t know much about how restaurants prepare and cook ground beef for hamburgers. If we know more about these practices, we can improve them and lessen the number of foodborne illnesses.

Study Purpose

We had two reasons to do this study. The first was to describe restaurant ground beef practices that could lead to

  • Undercooking of ground beef. We defined undercooking as cooking to less than 155°F because the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Food Code says that restaurants should cook ground beef to 155°F for 15 seconds. We also looked at whether restaurants used a thermometer to check final temperatures of hamburgers. Using a thermometer helps ensure that ground beef is not undercooked.
  • Cross contaminating other foods from raw ground beef. This can happen when hands or equipment touch raw ground beef and then touch other food or kitchen equipment.

The second reason for this study was to describe how much managers knew about and used irradiated ground beef. Irradiated ground beef is raw beef that has been treated to get rid of E. coli germs. If restaurants use irradiated beef instead of untreated ground beef, people may be less likely to get sick from germs in undercooked ground beef or from cross contamination of germs from raw ground beef.

Study Findings in Brief

EHS-Net found that many restaurants prepare and cook beef in ways that could lead to undercooking or cross contamination.

Study Design

Participants

We gathered data from 385 restaurants in the 2004 EHS-Net sites. We chose these restaurants at random.

Data Collection

State or local environmental health specialists gathered the data. In each restaurant, they talked to the manager and watched food workers make and cook hamburgers. They also took the temperature of hamburgers cooked in the restaurant.

Study Results

Ground beef cooking temperature

Eight in ten managers said their workers do not always take a final temperature of hamburgers with a thermometer.

Many managers said their workers always or often check if hamburgers are ready in ways other than using a thermometer. They check

  • the color of the hamburger.
  • how the hamburger looks.
  • how the hamburger feels.

About one in ten hamburgers were undercooked (cooked to less than 155°F).

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Cross contamination

In many restaurants, workers were seen preparing raw ground beef in a way that could lead to cross contamination. Workers

  • Did not wash their hands in between touching raw ground beef and touching other foods (six in ten restaurants).
  • Used the same utensil on raw ground beef and other foods without washing in between (one in three restaurants).
  • Used the same utensil on raw ground beef and cooked ground beef (without washing in between) (four in ten restaurants).
  • Wiped their hands on cloths/aprons after touching raw ground beef (4 in 10 restaurants).

In over half of restaurants, workers were seen doing two or more of these things that could lead to cross contamination.

Use of irradiated beef

At the time this study was done (2004), irradiated beef was just beginning to become available to restaurants and grocery stores in some parts of the country.

  • Only 2% of managers said their restaurants have used irradiated ground beef.
  • About one in three managers said they do not know what irradiated ground beef is.
  • Managers said they do not use irradiated ground beef because
    • It isn’t available.
    • They didn’t know it is available.
    • It costs too much.

Study Conclusions

Many restaurants prepared ground beef in ways that could lead to undercooking or cross contamination. Restaurant workers

  • Often did not use a thermometer to check the final temperatures of hamburgers.
  • Sometimes undercooked hamburgers.
  • Sometimes didn’t wash their hands or utensils after touching raw ground beef and before touching other foods.

These practices can lead to foodborne illness, especially if restaurants are not using irradiated ground beef. Most restaurants did not use irradiated ground beef.

EHS-Net Recommends

Restaurant management and food-safety programs should work to reduce practices that could lead to undercooking and cross contamination of raw ground beef. Efforts should focus on policies and training about

  • Measuring the final temperature of ground beef using a thermometer or using standard cooking methods that always cook ground beef to 155°F.
  • Preventing cross contamination by proper hand-washing and equipment cleaning.

If irradiated ground beef becomes readily available, food safety programs may also wish to consider educating restaurant owners about it. The risk for foodborne illness from undercooking ground beef and from cross contamination with ground beef may be lower if restaurants use irradiated ground beef.

Key Terms

  • Cross contamination: spread of germs from one surface or food to another by contact.
  • Environmental health specialists: public health workers who enforce health and safety standards related to food and other consumer products.
  • E. coli: germ that cause foodborne illness.
  • Food Code: A guide developed by the FDA on how to store, prepare, and cook food safely. Most state local rules and laws about food safety are based on the Food Code.
  • Irradiated ground beef: ground beef that has been treated to kill germs in the beef.

Cooking of Ground Beef
The FDA Food Code says that restaurants should cook ground beef to 155°F for 15 seconds. But CDC and USDA say that consumers should cook ground beef to 160°F. The guidance for consumers is different because it is simpler to meet one standard (temperature) than two (temperature and time). Cooking ground beef to 160°F kills E. coli germs rapidly.

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