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FEATURE ‌ Not So Rare

New state rules let you get your burger pink and bloody, if you dare

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Where's the beef? Now it's at any temperature you want it to be!
  • Where's the beef? Now it's at any temperature you want it to be!

In diner slang, ordering a hamburger "on the hoof" meant you wanted it rare. Hell, until this summer, any way you said it, you likely would get a polite refusal. By law, burgers in South Carolina couldn't be cooked to a temperature any lower than 155 degrees, preventing restaurant-goers from ordering anything less than a medium burger over fears of E. coli (no, it's not just in spinach) and other foodborne illnesses.

In the last days of the legislative session in June, the General Assembly approved a bill that allows the customer to choose whether they want their meat cooked rare, to about 130 degrees, or medium rare, to about 145 degrees.

Attached to the change are two specifications, says Dorothy Soranno, health inspector with the Charleston County Health Department. Patrons under 18 cannot ask for undercooked beef because of the greater risk for death from infection, and restaurants have to make notice of the possible health risk if meat is not fully cooked. Dietary guidelines by the U.S. Department of Agriculture suggest that pregnant women and the elderly also avoid undercooked beef.

At 39 Rue de Jean, the notice is included in the menu, says executive chef Fred Neuville. Though the restaurant gets a lot of requests for medium rare- and medium-cooked beef, it doesn't get many requests for rare, he says.

Sesame, a hamburger haven of sorts in North Charleston, serves only a smattering of pink-in-the-middle burgers, says head chef William Bates.

"We get maybe one medium rare burger in a day," he says.

A New York native, Bates says he likes his burgers medium rare and that Southerners are likely just hesitant to try a burger that's different from what they're used to.

Prior to the change in the law, restaurants would be cited for undercooked beef during temperature checks in the kitchen or if an order came into the kitchen while inspectors were there, says inspector Susan Bowen.

Some restaurants would provide rare or medium rare burgers at patrons' requests prior to the change because of a misconception about the state's law, Soranno says. Often through misinformation or rumor, restaurants that ground their own meat assumed they were exempt from the guideline. But grinding on site carries the same concerns the state once had about undercooked meat.

"Think about where the meat gets contaminated," she says. "It's at the slaughterhouse. It doesn't mater if you grind it at the grocery store or at the restaurant."

Many chain restaurants have standards that still prohibit them from serving medium-rare and rare beef, Bowen says. The state is working with restaurant associations to educate individual restaurants about the new regulations and standards for allowing rare and medium-rare dishes.

State law requires all potentially hazardous foods to be cooked to at least 145 degrees, except poultry, poultry stuffings, stuffed meats, stuffed pasta, and stuffings containing meat that should be cooked to 165 degrees, and pork and any food containing pork, game animals, comminuted fish and meat, roast beef, and beef steak to 155 degrees.

Beef tartare is allowed at restaurants because it's a raw dish and treated much like raw oysters, Bowen says.

So, while ordering a burger on the hoof may still draw puzzling looks, asking for it with a little pink inside should no longer be a problem.

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