If you like your burgers rare, you may finally have it your way in North Carolina.
After almost two decades in which state regulations required restaurants to cook ground beef to a meat-charring 155-degree minimum, the state is looking to change its policy to a kinder, gentler Food and Drug Administration guideline that allows rare burgers, as long as they come with a warning about undercooked meat.
That would be quite a change for customers at North Carolina's eateries, who have grown accustomed to having their burgers served up one way: well done.
“We don’t get too many complaints,” said Luke Thomas, bar manager at Big Daddy’s Burger in Charlotte. “People are used to it.”
But others say the idea of biting into an illegal, more rarely cooked burger is tempting -- and the change to the state's regulations, expected to take effect in July 2012, has been a long time coming.
“This is really the strictest law in the entire United States,” said Stephen Elliot, founder of RareBurger.com. “I don’t like being told what I can or can’t put in my stomach.”
Restaurants that don't follow the current state law aren't shut down for serving a rare burger, but lose points on their sanitation scores, which must be publicly displayed. Some burger joints reportedly insist on cooking to order, but they keep it under wraps.
North Carolina passed the food safety law in 1993, after a deadly E. coli outbreak linked to Jack in the Box restaurants killed four and sickened 700, including 171 who were hospitalized.
But North Carolina is hardly the only state with such rules. South Carolina and Wyoming also mandate burgers be cooked to 155 degrees. In fact, South Carolinians got so tired of burnt burgers that they revised the law a few years ago to allow customers 18 and older to order up rare burgers at some restaurants -- provided the restaurants not be held responsible for the health risk. Similar laws are in place in California and Colorado, where burgers can be cooked at a lower 145 degrees, if cooked for at least three minutes.
But most states follow the FDA's Food Code, which allows restaurants to serve rare hamburgers as long as they are accompanied by a warning telling consumers that undercooked meat can potentially be dangerous.
“It is time for North Carolina to follow the majority of the country. Government is occurring in so many parts of our life right now, and this is not where we need it,” said Elliot.
North Carolina is in the beginning stages of adopting the FDA guidelines, said Larry Michaels, of the North Carolina Division of Environmental Health. “Uniformity is the number one reason for adopting the food code,” Michaels said. “FDA food code is science-based, so we trust that and it makes our rule-making process easier.”
North Carolina hasn't completely ruled out all beef served rare. Customers can still order steaks at the desired temperature. According to the USDA, ground beef is held to a higher standard because when meat is ground, more of the meat is exposed to the harmful bacteria.
But Michaels warns that bacteria multiply rapidly in the "danger zone" – temperatures between 40 and 140 degrees fahrenheit.
For now, most customers will just have to get by with well done.
“We are constantly cooking tons of burgers, so if a customer has a problem with the way the burger is cooked, we will gladly take it back and start from scratch to try to make it to their liking,” said Thomas of Big Daddy's Burger. “But we won't cook the burgers less than 160 degrees. It’s the law.”