Trekking in Nepal involved 25 grueling vegan days of rice, lentils, mustard greens, noodles, barley stew, and boiled potatoes (and one glorious night of smoky yak steak and real mashed potatoes from the best darned Sherpani innkeeper in all of Sagarmatha National Park). When my partner and I returned to Kathmandu, we did what Americans do: we ate thin, well-done buff-burgers at the Thamel branch of Neroli’s famous Indian burger and ice cream chain. Unfortunately, the water buffalo must have been local, made from the hunks of carcasses sitting out on the street at the nearby butcher’s, covered with flies. We both caught vile cases of salmonella. In the 20 years since then, I’ve eaten maybe ten burgers.
On October 4, the New York Times carried an exhaustive report on a virulent strain of E. coli in American ground beef. (The U-T reprinted a short extract). This type of bacteria comes from cow poop (not flies): most cattle are fattened up standing cheek-by-cud in crowded feedlots, up to their knees in manure. An FDA honcho quoted in the story was doubtful that the usual health procedures used at home (e.g., cooking the meat well-done and washing the chopping board) were sufficient — this strain of E. coli is so evil, it infects even aprons and towels in the same kitchen.
The villain — nearly unavoidable in supermarket ground beef — is mass-processed meat coming from multiple sources, including low-on-the-cow “spare parts” that are most vulnerable to contamination from manure. The parts are all ground together at a mass slaughterhouse/meat processor.
Scarier yet, there’s no way consumers can know how thoroughly the mass processors clean their grinders of clinging, germy meat. The FDA is not standing by to inspect the equipment at every slaughterhouse and processor; in fact, as the Times revealed, they are as protective of the meat industry as they are of the public. When my friend Bruce Aidells was starting up as a sausage-maker, he used a fine, ethical local German sausage processor to mix his sausage meats — but for uncured (raw meat) sausages like his chicken-apple breakfast links, he had a smaller, separate grinder on the premises reserved for this use alone.
How To Be Safe(r)
If you regularly eat “burger joint” burgers — well, now you know the risk, even if you choose well done. But if you love burgers, you lower the risks by choosing single-sourced, branded, “free-range,” “natural,” or “grass-fed” ground beef, and/or going to burger joints that grind their own from scratch. At home, you can buy ground meat that’s inspected for E. coli after grinding, or grind the beef yourself from a single hunk of solid meat. (The specific victim the story cited had eaten frozen patties with the classy-sounding “Angus Burgers” label, but Angus is merely a popular breed, not a specific ranch.)
For cooking at home, Costco is the only mass-market retailer that actually inspects and tests its meat for E. coli after grinding. Their ground beef is most likely to be worth a gamble for homemade burgers.
In restaurants that don’t grind their own, look for a brand name or for guarantees of organic, “natural,” free-range, or grass-raised beef. For instance, local Brandt Beef in Imperial County does herd together their free-range cattle to be finished off on grain, but their feedlot (at least, per their online videos) still leaves room enough for the animals to prance around (so, less filth on the ankles). Better yet, they use a small meat processor in L.A. — the only other client is Matt Rimel’s pristine grass-fed Palomar Mountain Beef.
Whether “free-range, “grass-fed,” or “Kobe,” branded high-class meats can’t risk contaminating their names with grinder remnants of meat contaminated by mass-produced beef. Hence, I’ve trusted Snake River Kobe and ground bison burgers to make Ethiopian raw-beef “tartare,” kitfo. Never any ill effects.
DIY Ground Meat
Regular readers may have noticed that I regularly eat raw beef in restaurants as carpaccio, steak tartare, and kitfo. The secret is that none of these is made from ground beef; all are made from a single piece of steak, sliced or chopped just before serving. A well-cleaned, refrigerated slab of muscle (that hasn’t been sitting out on the hot streets of Kathmandu) is fairly unlikely to harbor serious bacterial contamination.
My friend Teresa, a former restaurateur and cooking teacher from Haiti, taught me an invaluable lesson in cleaning animal proteins, whatever you mean to do with them. (This technique is common all over the Caribbean and throughout West Africa — a brilliant remnant of prerefrigeration eras. If only they’d used it in Nepal!) Cut a lemon or large lime in half (or two, for a larger piece). Lay the meat (or poultry or fish) on a cutting board and, using heavy pressure, rub half the cut citrus all over it, scrubbing hard. Flip and repeat, using the other half of the citrus. Then rinse the meat under very hot tap water until the surface turns gray. (For fish, use cool water.) This procedure removes all traces of the surface moisture that’s liable to harbor contaminants.
For burgers, start with a cheap steak (e.g., round, chuck, top sirloin) and trim off silverskin around the edge and excess fat. (Save some fat to add back in; burgers need about 20 percent fat.) After cleaning the meat as above, cut it into manageable chunks. Grind (with some fat) in a meat grinder or run in a food processor until minced. If food-processed, spread meat on a clean cutting board. Quickly, with fingers or tweezers, pull out and discard all the silvery pieces of gristle you can find. (If using an extra-lean cut, you can melt a little butter and mix it into the meat…or, you can plant a pat of butter in the center of your patty.) Season meat as desired. If not using immediately, refrigerate until ready to use.
With these precautions, your risks from a rare or medium-rare burger are minimized (but don’t sue me — this is no guarantee). As for supermarket ground beef, I still buy it from time to time to use for long-cooked dishes like Latin American picadillos and stews. Never for burgers — not since Nepal. And when I do use supermarket ground beef from now on, afterward I will sterilize my cutting board with bleach.