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Why eating a rare burger is more dangerous than eating a rare steak

The USDA recommends cooking steaks and ground beef to different internal temperatures.
Rare Steak and rare hamburger
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/ Source: TODAY

With Memorial Day and summer grilling season fast approaching, Americans are about to eat lots of hot dogs, barbecue chicken, ribs and burgers.

But before firing up the grill, it's important to brush up on the latest guidelines regarding how to cook different cuts of meat to ensure that you and your backyard barbecue party guests don't get sick.

While many people enjoy a rare filet mignon without issue, all beef is not created equal. Here's why eating a rare burger is not the same as eating rare steak.

Grilling hot dogs and hamburgers

Ground beef or hamburger meat are more commonly linked with outbreaks of foodborne illnesses because of how they are made, said Stephanie Pixley, deputy editor of books at America's Test Kitchen.

"During the butchery process, as large cuts of meat are broken down into smaller portions, bacteria can be transferred along the way through cross-contamination," Pixley explained to TODAY Food. When meat is ground up, more of its surface area is exposed to air and various tools, meaning the likelihood of it coming into contact with a potentially harmful bacteria increases.

According to Pixley, not cooking a hamburger thoroughly to an internal temperature of 160 degrees means that any bacteria on the meat, such as E. coli and salmonella, may not be killed.

"I don't know that I'd call ground beef dangerous, but if your immune system is compromised or if you are pregnant or elderly, it's especially important to cook ground beef to 160 degrees to ensure that any harmful bacteria present will be destroyed," Pixley said. She did note, however, that for healthy adults the risk is usually quite low if the meat is fresh.

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Since ground beef is processed more than a steak, chop or whole roast, it's more likely that any bacteria may be mixed throughout the meat, too, according to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).This is especially true at the center of the burger, said Pixley.

A steak, roast or chop, for example, is safe to eat when cooked to an internal temperature of 145 degrees and then allowed to rest for at least three minutes. Whole cuts of veal or lamb are also safe to consume at this temperature.

While cross-contamination can happen in a large meat processing plant or at the local butcher shop, it can also happen at home. "It's equally important that home cooks work cleanly in their own kitchens to ensure that they aren't spreading any bacteria from the meat they're preparing to other dishes nearby," she advised.

Pixley recommended cooks clean their knives, counter tops and cutting boards thoroughly with hot, soapy water after working with raw meat.

"Additionally, I can't stress the importance of a meat thermometer enough. It's really the best way to tell if your burgers or steaks [or chicken] have reached the right temperature," Pixley said.

The USDA also advises storing ground beef at a temperature of 40 degrees or lower, and using it within two days of purchase, or freezing it. When you're ready to get grilling, thawing the meat in the refrigerator (versus just leaving it out on the counter) is also recommended to help keep bacteria levels low. And if there's any hamburger meat left after cooking, the USDA says to refrigerate it quickly if you want to use it later. Illness-causing bacteria can grow within or on perishable foods within two hours unless it's refrigerated, according to the USDA.

"When we choose to eat a burger cooked to medium-rare, we're making a personal assessment of palatability weighed against safety," Pixley said. "With that said, if you're suspicious that the hamburger patties your neighbor is grilling have been sitting in the sun for a little too long, it might be worth it to just ask for a well-done burger."