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My Son Ate Raw Hamburger: Now What?

A few weeks ago, my family and I were at a fair. My son went off to get some lunch and came back with a half-eaten burger, of which he kindly offered me a bite. I took one look and recoiled: The meat inside was bright pink, clearly not cooked through.

As a nutrition writer, I knew that undercooked hamburger can harbor illness-inducing pathogens such as E. coli and salmonella. I knew it could take up to a week for my son to get sick if indeed the meat he'd eaten was contaminated. And I knew that while most cases of food-borne illness are fleeting, some can cause serious complications and even be deadly.

But I didn't know what to do. I thought of making him go to the bathroom and stick his finger down his throat to induce vomiting. That didn't sound right, somehow. Anyway, I was pretty sure he wouldn't comply.

So I spent the rest of the week keeping a nervous eye on the boy, noting all his bathroom comings and goings. He was, of course, fine.

A prodigious Googler, I went looking for information about what to do if this ever should happen again. I found plenty of tips for what to do after you're taken ill, but nothing about that time between ingesting something suspicious and the onset of symptoms. Believe me, that can seem like a very long time. (The whole experience prompted me to write about food-borne illness in this week's "Eat, Drink and Be Healthy" column.)

So I called the American College of Gastroenterology; they put me in touch with Patricia Raymond, a gastroenterologist practicing in Virginia Beach.

Raymond told me I could have "flung the rest of the burger in the microwave" and cooked it through, or I could have made him throw the rest of it out. She didn't recommend making him vomit up what he'd eaten. But she did suggest I should have gone back and spoken to the folks at the burger stand -- both to let them know about the undercooked meat and to get a receipt for the burger, just in case we needed to document the incident down the road.

Should my son have become ill, Raymond said, it would have been best just to let the illness run its course. "Most cases of food poisoning only last long enough for the body to evacuate the evil bacteria," she said. And that process, she said, shouldn't be "stopped up" with medications to relieve vomiting or diarrhea. "It's evacuating for good reason," she said.

But it is important to keep well hydrated during a bout of food poisoning, Raymond added. Instead of plain water, use something that will replenish electrolytes. Try Pedialyte or a home-made version: a liter of water plus some fresh-squeezed orange juice, a teaspoon of sugar and a teaspoon of salt.

But if the sick person were to develop a high-grade fever or bloody diarrhea or "look dehydrated," Raymond said, "All bets are off. Get them to the emergency department."

Have you had a similar scare? How did you handle it? Share your story -- and take a moment to vote in today's poll:

By Jennifer LaRue Huget  |  September 29, 2009; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Food Safety and Recalls , General Health  
Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   StumbleUpon   Technorati   Google Buzz   Previous: Does Routine Bilirubin Screening Make for Healthier Babies?
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That reminds me of my raw burger experience. I was interviewing for a faculty position at the University of Missouri and was taken to a local burger joint that was clearly a favorite of the department. I took a bit into my burger and discovered to my horror that the meat wasn't undercooked on the inside, it was raw. My guess is that the patty was still frozen on the inside when they put it on the grill.

I clearly could have sent it back and created a bit of fuss during a day long job interview. Or, smile politely and tuck in. I choked it down. Fortunately, without consequences.


Posted by: FairlingtonBlade | September 29, 2009 9:24 AM | Report abuse

What's wrong with the people in France eating steak tartare (raw beef and raw egg) and the Italians with the beef carpaccio (raw beef) and the zabaglione (raw eggs)? Is it how they stay thin?
How come that in the U.S. there are some many instances of tainted food? Are the food safety and inspections just a big joke? Can someone please chime in?

An Italian

Posted by: stefano3 | September 29, 2009 12:11 PM | Report abuse

There is one more option: tell him not to eat the burger, but keep it in case the child gets sick, as the burger may need to be tested.

Posted by: phoon | September 29, 2009 12:38 PM | Report abuse

Is the Ethiopian food kitfo somehow okay to eat? It's basically raw hamburger meat but I always figured that since they serve it in a restaurant, it's not supposed to kill you. Can anyone confirm?

Posted by: varmau | September 29, 2009 1:11 PM | Report abuse

A great article. I know raw hamburger is bad but I thought pink would be OK.
Now I know better.
How about prime rib or other steaks?

Posted by: willsCA | September 29, 2009 3:08 PM | Report abuse

A standard rule for me is NOT to eat at places like that. I imagine dust of dead dog, and fly borne particles everywhere. Children, thank God, have cast iron stomachs,and they could have survived that, as he did, without anything bad happening. I would have gone to the manager of the stand and stated that all burgers ordered by children should be well cooked, whether they ask for it like that or no. I would have used my authority voice to which the only answer is "Yes,ma'am". Adults in this country have a responsibility to protect all children. When I walk about in public places, I carry a bottle of water and about two dozen raw almonds in a ziplock bag. That would keep me for three hours or so.I am immune compromised due to diabetes, and cannot risk food borne illnesses.

Posted by: elainedatter2 | September 29, 2009 3:54 PM | Report abuse

Yes, Fairlingtonblade, cooking hamburger patties from a frozen state is a bad idea. It is likely that the pattie will get charred on the outside (the fat does that) before the inside is cooked. To kill e.coli, a bacteria commonly associated with hamburgers, the burger must be cooked to a minimum Internal temperature of 155F and held at that temperature for 15 sec.

Posted by: kateblackburn730 | September 30, 2009 12:19 AM | Report abuse

Phoon Yes, keep the burger remains. But, freeze as quickly as possible to retard further growth of bacteria, in order to keep the bacteria count close to what it was when the food was ingested. Freezing does not kill bacteria, but it does retard its growth. Label your sample with the time of collecion and the time of freezing.

Posted by: kateblackburn730 | September 30, 2009 12:49 AM | Report abuse

WillsCA--Rare steak is OK. Just char all of the edges: top bottom, side, side side, side. There should not be 'raw' or 'bloody' edges visible. That doesn't take long. You can still have your rare steak
Steak is a 'whole muscle intact meat'. It comes from the internal parts of the cow and is not, typically, subject to the kind of contamination that affects hamburger meat which comes from external 'parts' of the cow which can be contaminated during the slaughter process.

Posted by: kateblackburn730 | September 30, 2009 1:07 AM | Report abuse

elainedatter21. I really appreciate your remarks, but I beg to differ that children have cast iron stomachs. Under the age of four years, children are very vulnerable to food borne illnesses ,in particular those caused by e.coli H157.07. Eating a hamburger contaminated with that bacteria often causes, in young children, a condition called hemolytic uremic syndrome. The toxin from the bacteria can travel from the intestines to kidneys causing kidney failure. Children who suffer from this HUS (hemolytic uremic syndrome) will be subject to indefinite kidney dialysis which is not a prognosis for a healthy or long life. How often does this happen? Not often. But it does happen. A relaxed attitude with our children, most of the time, is good; but vigilance guided by scientific understanding is advised.

Posted by: kateblackburn730 | September 30, 2009 1:25 AM | Report abuse

It's a good thing to have healthy eating habits. It's a good thing to wash your hands before every meal. And it's a good thing to avoid eating food at the fair. But if you get worried sick over every undercooked burger, and if you're afraid to eat at the fair or at a potluck dinner, you're missing out on some of life's joys. Don't spread that other contagion -- paranoia -- to your kids.

Posted by: jsfblossom1 | September 30, 2009 1:22 PM | Report abuse

To willsCA :

Re cooking steaks etc. to the point where the inside stays pink :
My understanding is that harmful bacteria is usually found only on the surface of meat.
(When you cook hamburger you use ground meat where what was once the surface is mostly on the inside.).

Posted by: observer31 | September 30, 2009 2:27 PM | Report abuse

My thought... you might be overreacting.

I often cook my burgers so they're still pink on the inside. The recent idea that burgers must be completely cooked to burger brown inside and out is a relatively recent idea.

And who said you shouldn't eat food at the fair. It's one of life's delights. Live a little. For goodness sakes.

Posted by: Ombudsman1 | October 5, 2009 9:53 PM | Report abuse

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