Government scientists warn of food poison risk in burgers

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BURGERS BOUGHT from some restaurants, mobile vans and pubs are not being properly cooked putting customers at risk of food poisoning, public health officials say.

A survey by government scientists has identified burgers as a chief source of infection, with E. coli O157 one of the most fearsome bugs which can cause serious illness and deaths.

E. coli O157 was responsible for the world's worst food poisoning outbreak in Scotland in 1996 in which19 people died. The bacterium has emerged in the last two decades and caused earlier outbreaks in Lanarkshire and in the United States and Japan.

Scientists from the Government's Public Health Laboratory Service who studied 85 sporadic (unlinked) cases of infection with the bacterium found beefburgers were the likeliest source. An exception was those bought from a national fast food chain which "ensured thorough cooking of the meat from top and bottom simultaneously for a fixed pre-determined time governed by a timer attached to the grill".

The chain involved is not identified in the report, published in the Lancet, but inquiries disclosed that it is McDonald's. However, because fewer people ate at other restaurants the researchers were unable to show statistically whether their burgers were safe or not.

A spokesman for the laboratory service said: "The message from this study is that people who are eating out should be prepared to send back under- cooked burgers."

The researchers visited nine premises and found a variety of cooking methods. In one restaurant, part of a national chain (not McDonald's), cooking times for the burgers were laid down but there was no obvious method of adhering to them. In another, part of a restaurant chain, cooking times were laid down but when followed by the researchers the burgers still came out pink in the middle (under-cooked). A pub and a privately owned burger bar used approximate cooking times.

The study also found a link between the E. coli infection and eating cooked sliced meats from caterers - but not when they were bought from butchers and supermarkets. The researchers blame "food handling errors" by caterers which were avoided by producers and retailers.

A spokesman for Burger King said yesterday: "We think we do exactly what is stated in the study - cooking from above and below with a timer and with checks of the temperature when the burger is fully cooked."

Wimpy said: "We ensure our own quality checks are carried out and we are confident of our own procedures."