Burger controversy: Rare meat crackdown could break the wave of West End burger joints

By Luke Nicholls

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Burger

The High Court's decision could set a precedent for how rare and medium-rare burgers are regulated in restaurants and pubs across the UK
The High Court's decision could set a precedent for how rare and medium-rare burgers are regulated in restaurants and pubs across the UK
Foodservice businesses are being warned about the potentially fatal risks of selling rare and medium-rare burgers that haven't been prepared correctly after Westminster Council served notice against Davy’s Wine Bar for the sale of its ‘undercooked’ £13.95 burger.

Davy’s has appealed the notice to the High Court, whose decision could set a precedent for how rare burgers are regulated in restaurants and pubs across the country. And, following the recent flurry of burger joints in the West End,​this could have a significant impact on the dining scene in the capital.

One of the latest restaurants to tap in on London's recent 'burger boom' is Patty & Bun.​The 28-cover venue on James Street served 2,500 customers in its opening week, but owner Joe Grossman told BigHospitality that the High Court’s decision could ‘send ripples through the burger world’.

E. coli risk

“If you follow current guidelines then you’ll know that you’re doing enough,” he said. “But the problems come when people don’t know the exact sourcing of their meat.

“If you’re getting it in and blending it in-house, there is more chance of an outbreak of E. coli. So I do see the council’s point because at the end of the day it’s a really serious issue, but where do you draw the line?

“If you’ve got a brilliant product and you’re serving great meat from a trusted source, then to be put in the same bracket as other businesses that are perhaps less diligent is, in my opinion, a bit unnecessary.”

Grossman’s view is echoed by fellow restaurateur David Strauss, general manager of Goodman Restaurants which owns three (soon to be four) Burger & Lobster venues across the capital. 

“It’s a difficult one, because I really do get the council’s point,” said Strauss. “People don’t seem to understand that you only need one idiot in the business who’s not washing their hands and you’ve got a real situation.

Rising burger costs

“E. coli can kill many people from just one outbreak - it’s not just food poisoning, it’s a threat for life. And an outbreak could come from pubs that don’t have proper refrigeration, or a venue which is just jumping on this burger craze. It's something that really could happen here if they don’t bring some legislation in.

“But there are two sides to it. They’re advising us that what we’d need to do is sear off the meat with a blowtorch or a grill and take it up to 70 degrees for a longer period of time, which is going to add another 15 per cent onto the cost of a burger – we’d be happy to do that, but I don’t know how many other businesses would.

“If this High Court ruling goes through then the whole burger craze might end because some businesses are just going to sink.”

When news of Westminster Council’s ruling first broke yesterday, some interpreted it to mean rare burgers would be banned altogether, but food health and safety manager James Armitage has been quick to point out that food improvement notices will only be served on restaurants that are not treating meat properly before it is minced.

“This is not about banning undercooked burgers,” Armitage told BigHospitality. “This is about making sure customers are eating meat that is not a threat to their health. It's possible to produce burgers that can be eaten undercooked, but strict controls are necessary for this.”

“We've enlisted one of the UK’s top experts on E. Coli, Professor Hugh Pennington, to get this matter resolved and he's already outlined that rare minced meat that is not correctly cooked can kill – we have to take that seriously and we believe Davy's Wine Bar falls well below the standards required.”

Checklist: Are your burgers safe?

  • Responsibility - ​An FSA Spokesperson told BigHospitality: “There are no rules prohibiting the sale of raw or rare meat by restaurants or caterers, only laws to ensure that what is offered to the consumer is safely produced. The food business is ultimately responsible for ensuring this.
  • Food safety - ​“They should be able to demonstrate, on inspection, that they have the required knowledge and controls in place to prepare the food in a safe manner. The FSA’s advice is that as a precaution burgers should be cooked through to ensure any harmful bacteria that maybe present are killed.”
  • Know your meat - ​Hamburger meat is ground up, so the bacteria on the surface of the meat will get inside and won't get killed by the cooking, since the inside is not cooked. Steak on the other hand is not ground, so the bacteria stay on the outside and should be killed by just cooking the outside.
  • FSA guidance - ​Current guidance from the FSA states that, when cooking burgers, meat should be cooked at 70°C for two minutes. If Westminster wins the case, this may be reassessed.

Westminster’s burger case will resume in early May 2013 at Westminster Magistrates Court. The controversy follows months of debates over the risks posed by rare meat. Upmarket burger chain Byron recently stopped serving its hamburgers rare following the intervention of an unnamed local authority, despite not receiving a single customer complaint.

And just last month, the Raymond Blanc-founded casual-dining chain Brasserie Blanc was banned from serving its rare lamb's liver dish in all of its restaurants​after environmental health officers claimed it ‘posed an immediate risk of injury to health’.

What do you think about this? Is Westminster Council right to crack down on the sale of rare and medium-rare burgers in restaurants and pubs? Leave a comment below or get in touch via Facebook​and Twitter​ to let us know your thoughts.

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