Rare treats become rarer

October 25, 1997


Staff Writer

If you order a rare hamburger at the Historic Hilltop House, you just might find Rodney Miller at your table trying to talk you out of it.

"I'll tell them I want to cook it to at least medium. I basically push to sell it well," said Miller, assistant cook at the Harpers Ferry, W.Va., restaurant.

Amid a series of outbreaks of food-borne illnesses across the country, Tri-State area restaurants have all but abandoned the rare hamburger.


Federal inspectors this week said they have discovered for the first time E. coli contamination in imported ground beef, preventing more than 34,000 pounds of the Canadian product from getting into the marketplace.

And in Maryland, officials are adopting stricter rules on the handling and cooking of food in restaurants.

"I really think that there is more reason to worry. We're importing a lot more foods and that worries me," said Judi Rice, sanitarian at the Jefferson County (W.Va.) Health Department.

Restaurant inspectors in the Tri-State area said few cases of food-borne illness have been reported in the last year.

But that doesn't mean it's not a problem.

"Many, many people just simply don't go to a doctor," Rice said.

Rice has investigated 13 reports of food-borne illness since January, down from last year when 25 people got sick at a company picnic.

Rice declined to name the caterer, whose pasta salads were accidentally contaminated by an employee infected with salmonella.

There are three main ingredients to food safety, the experts said.

First, make sure the raw meat doesn't come into contact with other foods. Second, make sure the food is cooked thoroughly enough to kill the bacteria. Third, hold the food at temperatures cold or hot enough to prevent more bacteria from growing.

"Everyone has to realize that any piece of raw meat should be considered contaminated," said Sue Yeager, district epidemiologist for the Pennsylvania State Health Center.

Safety rules have gotten stricter in the 18 years that Miller has been in the food service business, he said.

In Maryland, the holding temperature for hot foods was raised from 140 degrees to 145 degrees, said Kent Hedges, sanitarian at the Washington County Health Department.

Beef also must be cooked longer, until it reaches an internal temperature of 155 degrees for 15 seconds. Before, the standard was 140 degrees, Hedges said.

The internal temperature for chicken remains unchanged at 165 degrees, he said.

Most food servers already are meeting the new standards, he said.

The challenge now is to keep the food from drying out, which it tends to do if held a higher temperatures for a long time.

"It's kind of like walking a tightrope to make sure the food is safe and maintain the quality," he said.

Many restaurants, especially larger chains, also have adopted a system of following the food from the time it's delivered until it's served, inspectors said.

"You're starting to see more restaurants going that way, which we're glad of," said Lenchen Radle, regional supervisor for the Division of Food Safety at the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture.

Restaurant managers seem to be more aware of food safety hazards. Some are buying special equipment, like thermometers designed to use on very thin foods, Radle said.

In Jefferson County, all 2,000 food service workers have gone through food safety training from the health department, Rice said.

Recently, Mountain Gate Restaurant in Waynesboro, Pa., asked a health inspector to conduct seminars for its employees on food safety, said General Manager Sam Eckstine.

Jim Kercheval of Kerch's Ribs and Chicken in Hagerstown said he makes sure his employees know that safety is more important than the bottom line.

"If there's any question, don't ever take any kind of risk. One bad sandwich can destroy a business," he said.

The health department has been giving local restaurants some good tips lately, instead of just enforcing the regulations with a heavy hand, said Bob Resh, general manager of Richardson's Restaurant in Hagerstown.

For instance, Resh learned that it is safer to refrigerate canned tuna before making tuna salad because room-temperature tuna lowers the temperature of the salad, he said.

Restaurant inspectors said they like the recent media attention to food-borne illnesses because it increases awareness of the problem.

In July, 20 people in Colorado got sick from ground beef patties distributed by Hudson Foods Inc. of Rogers, Ark. That led to a recall of more than a million pounds of meat possibly tainted with E. coli.

But the bacteria can show up in a wide range of foods, especially raw vegetables.

The CDC reported U.S. outbreaks of E. coli linked to contaminated lettuce in 1995 and 1996, and to unpasteurized apple juice last year. In Japan last year, at least 6,000 people were sickened by E. coli linked to radish sprouts.

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