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Burger Most Foul

Burger Most Foul

Adam McCabe, Solicitor

Attention burger aficionados. The UK Food Standards Agency (FSA) has recently declared that the preparation and service of rare burgers in food outlets will be permitted only where public safety notices and a verified food safety management plan are in place. So if your favourite burger purveyor isn’t on the ball then they might face a grilling from the food regulator. And unlike a chef preparing a tres rare burger, the FSA won’t hold back. But before the cries of “Stop that Chef!” ring out across the land (if they ever do), Scotland’s own food regulator, the newly-established Food Standards Scotland (FSS), has chosen not to follow suit. FSS advice remains unchanged: chefs should cook burgers all the way through, in accordance with relevant microbiological guidance or equivalent verified controls. The Scottish Food Enforcement Liaison Committee has, however, now set up a working group tasked with harmonising risk assessment approaches for dealing with “risky foods”.

The FSA’s recent decision will require food businesses in England and Wales which serve undercooked burgers to pre-notify their local authority; to provide reassurances in relation to controls on suppliers of mince for consumption in rare or lightly cooked in burgers, and to warn consumers of the risks of consuming these. At the risk of creating “burger envy” north and south of the border, the Food (Scotland) Act 2015 does provide for FSS setting different performance standards for different types of food legislation, which may have opened the door for higher food law enforcement standards being applied here than in other parts of the UK. It could also explain why FSS has been so publicly grappling with that alleged serial (and as yet unrepresented) Scottish public health offender, the deep-fried Mars Bar (see more here) which appears to be a cause for concern no matter how well cooked.

Modern tastes, like sushi or gourmet burgers served pink, bring particular food safety risks and these require specific safety plans. Food intended to be served raw is already subject to a range of controls and best practice, such as the Hazard Action and Critical Control Points safety management system, and it is right that businesses need to ensure adequate procedures are in place in-house as well as when sourcing raw materials (literally) from suppliers. There is a need to check compliance upstream. Trust is not enough – the horsemeat scandal should have made that perfectly clear.

Undercooked burgers are not the same as undercooked steak; with minced beef the bacteria on the outside is processed throughout the meat and is therefore more inherently risky. The danger of divergent paths north and south of the border, as some have noted, is that it cooks up the idea of it being safe to eat the same product in one jurisdiction but not another. This might leave a sour taste in the mouth for consumers in Scotland who prefer their burgers pink and who are willing to accept that it is a higher-risk product. At least one major burger outlet in England has plans to implement safety notices warning that consumption of undercooked meat “may increase illness particularly for those in vulnerable groups”. A glance at the menu of one of Scotland’s growing number of specialist burger houses will often see small print to the effect that your product will be “sealed in a fryer and cooked medium unless specially requested”.

Before the FSA’s decision on rare burgers is denounced as a load of mince, it must be remembered that both their remit and that of FSS is consumer protection. Last year the FSA released a study showing that there are more than 500,000 cases of food poisoning a year from known pathogens, with the caveat that this figure “would be more than double if it included food poisoning cases from unknown pathogens”. Food poisoning can be fatal, quite apart from the costs to the NHS and lost working days of those struck down by it. And prosecutions, unlike an undercooked hamburger, are anything but rare. It was only in January of this year when a pub chef and his manager in England were imprisoned, and the corporate chain owning the pub fined £1.5million, after inadequate preparation of Christmas turkey inflicted food poisoning on over thirty people and led to the death of one customer. Similarly, an outbreak of food poisoning at a Bristol hotel, infecting some 44 people with three hospitalisations, saw the operating company fined £65,000 after a guilty plea in relation to sale of unsafe food and failure to implement an effective food safety management system.

Adam’s previous blog on food law enforcement can be accessed here.

Adam McCabe
Solicitor

LChalmers