Restaurants not good at explaining risks of undercooked meat to customers

Majority of servers gave secret shopper customers unreliable information about food safety.

Front-line restaurant staff, such as servers, are often trusted with providing customers with food safety information on their meals. A challenge to the foodservice industry is that these positions have high turnover, relatively low wages and a focus primarily on providing patrons with a positive experience. New research shows that this poses a problem.

A recent study found that restaurants don't do an effective job of communicating with customers when it comes to addressing risks associated with eating undercooked meat -- specifically hamburgers. Inaccurate information provided by servers 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," said 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 Escherichia 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 said. "We've looked at cooking shows, observed hand washing 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, 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," Chapman added.

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

The study found that 25% 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% -- gave customers unreliable information about food safety.

"Servers said that meat was safe because it was cooked until 'until the juices ran clear,' which is totally unreliable," said Ellen Thomas, a food safety scientist at RTI International and lead author of the study who worked on the project while a Ph.D. student at North Carolina State. "Those 77% didn't mention things like cooking meat to the appropriate temperature -- either 155°F for 15 seconds or 160°F for instant kill.

"The indicator of safety most widely reported by servers was the color of the burger, and that's also not a reliable indicator at all," Thomas noted. "Time and temperature are all that matter. An undercooked, unsafe burger can be brown in the middle, and a safely cooked burger can still be red or pink in the center."

While almost all of the menus complied with FDA guidance, what servers told customers often contradicted the information on the menu.

"If a menu says something is risky but a server says that it isn't, that can downplay the risks for consumers and impact a customer's decisions," Chapman said. "It's confusing, leaving the patron to choose which message to believe."

The researchers also found that chain restaurants fared much better than independent restaurants at having servers offer reliable risk information.

"That's not surprising," Chapman said. "Large chains implement standardized training across all outlets for servers in order to protect their brand and reduce the likelihood of being implicated in a foodborne illness outbreak; that's bad for business.”

He said the study shows that servers aren't good risk communicators. "We encourage consumers to ask food safety questions, but they should probably ask a manager,” he added.

"It also tells us that we need to work on addressing the widespread -- and wrong -- belief that color is a reliable indicator of food safety in meat," Chapman noted. "Restaurants are in a position to help us share this information with consumers, but many servers are currently sharing incorrect information."

The paper, "Assessment of Risk Communication about Undercooked Hamburgers by Restaurant Servers," was published in the Journal of Food Protection.

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