hamburger

Restaurant Customers Often Get Bad Food-Safety Information

Restaurants don’t do an effective job of telling customers about the risks associated with eating undercooked meat – specifically hamburgers, according to new research.

The information provided by servers, the research found, often contradicts science-based information customers need to make informed food safety decisions.

All 50 states in the U.S. have adopted some version of the Food & Drug Administration’s Model Food Code, which requires restaurants to tell customers about risks associated with undercooked meat and poultry products.

“We wanted to know how well restaurant servers and menus communicated with customers about these risks, specifically in the context of beef hamburgers,” says Ben Chapman, co-author of a study on the work and an associate professor at North Carolina State University whose research program is aimed at improving food safety.

The researchers focused on beef hamburgers because consuming undercooked ground beef has been linked to a lot of foodborne illness outbreaks, including outbreaks related primarily to Shiga toxin-producing E. coli.

For this study, the researchers sent trained “secret shoppers” into 265 full-service, sit-down restaurants in seven different regions around the U.S. At each restaurant, the patrons ordered one well-done hamburger and one medium-rare hamburger to go. The shoppers then recorded how, if at all, the restaurant communicated about risk.

This study is the latest in a long line of real-world research that Chapman and his collaborators have conducted.

“We try to actually match what people do versus what they say they do because people will say anything on a survey,” Chapman says. “We’ve looked at cooking shows; observed handwashing and cross-contamination in commercial kitchens; examined hand hygiene during a norovirus outbreaks and others. What people actually do is the difference between an enjoyable meal and a foodborne illness.

“For example,” Chapman says, “did the server mention risks associated with undercooked meat when the shopper ordered? If not, the shopper would ask about the risk of getting sick, and then record whether the wait staff responded with clear, accurate information.”

The shoppers also looked to see whether restaurants included clear, accurate risk information on their menus.

The study found that 25 percent of restaurants wouldn’t even sell an undercooked hamburger to secret shoppers. However, at restaurants that would sell a medium-rare hamburger, the majority of servers – 77 percent – gave customers unreliable information about food safety.