"That is a very high figure and quite scary when you consider that the bacteria in raw minced meat can make us seriously ill," says veterinarian Elin Røssvoll, who is undertaking scholarship work on food safety at Nofima Mat and the Norwegian School of Veterinary Science.
Children are particularly at risk
E.coli bacteria are found in the intestines of all warm blooded animals. Ruminants can also occasionally have the pathogenic E.coli bacteria (EHEC - enterohemorrhagic E.coli) in their intestines. During the slaughtering process, the surface of the carcasses may become contaminated by the intestinal contents. Whole pieces of meat will only have E.coli bacteria on their surface and these bacteria will be rapidly killed by heat treatment. But in minced meat products, the bacteria become evenly spread through the mince and, if these products are not sufficiently cooked, the bacteria in the middle can survive. It is disturbing therefore that 12 per cent say that hamburgers taste best when they are not entirely cooked through.
"It is primarily the EHEC we are concerned about when people eat raw minced meat. Most other food poisoning bacteria need a little time and a certain temperature to reproduce in large numbers - and it is normally the large concentrations of bacteria that make us ill. EHEC on the other hand is so pathogenic in itself that it does not need to reproduce before it can make us ill. That means there is just as great a risk of becoming ill from EHEC in fresh minced meat as in older products," explains Røssvoll.
Infection with EHEC can give stomach cramps and intense, bloody diarrhoea. A serious after-effect that can occur after an EHEC infection is Hemolytic Uremic Syndrome (HUS) which causes acute kidney failure. Both children and adults can become ill, with symptoms like those of a normal tummy bug. But children have a much greater risk of more serious diarrhoea and of contracting the kidney disease HUS. Figures from the Norwegian Institute of Public Health show that 10 per cent of children with HUS develop chronic kidney failure, while the mortality rate among children with HUS is 3-5 per cent.
Don't use minced beef to make steak tartare!
"I get very annoyed when I read steak tartare recipes on the internet. Most of them, even from well known recipe sites, use lean minced beef. When we also consider that 13 per cent would consider serving steak tartare or carpaccio to their children, and we know that children are especially at risk, it isn't hard to understand how this could lead to serious illness," says Røssvoll. Although she does add that none of the recent E.coli outbreaks in Norway has been caused by minced meat.
A comprehensive national monitoring programme for EHEC shows that the incidence of these bacteria in Norway is extremely low compared with other countries. But because the illnesses these bacteria can lead to are so serious, we should still be careful - here in Norway too.
And you can still enjoy your steak tartare and carpaccio - provided you prepare them in a safe way. Use a whole piece of meat and sear the outside; then cut this away and mince the pure raw meat in the middle. If you use this meat to make hamburgers, you can have them as pink as you like in the middle. But if you buy minced meat to make hamburgers, you must cook them through properly!