How to avoid hamburger hell

Eat pink ground beef at your peril

Steve Bartlett
Published on May 22, 2012
Eating an undercooked burger nearly cost Gregg Jesperson his life 17 years ago. Because the burger was contaminated with E. coli bacteria, he developed hemolytic uremic syndrome. — Photo by ThinkStock Images

As the burners and charcoal are ignited for barbecue season, it’s a fitting time to tell Gregg Jesperson’s story.

It’ll likely make you heed that hamburger harbinger — eating it raw is risky.

Seventeen years ago, Jesperson ate a burger that was still pink at a mom-and-pop restaurant in northern Alberta, where he and his family were living at the time.

The medication he’ll have to take for life is one reason why he’s not going to forget what happened anytime soon.

“It was pretty spooky, for sure,” he says.

Jesperson, now a teacher at Booth Memorial in St. John’s, ate the burger on a Thursday.

He was so tired the next day that he stayed home from school.

On Saturday, his wife Kelly recalls, he was “a little bit delirious, talking about things that didn’t make any sense.”

By Sunday, Jesperson was really sick and had to be taken to hospital in Grand Cache, Alta.

Two days later, and progressively sicker, he mentioned to doctors that he hadn’t peed in a while. His kidneys had shut down.

Jesperson was promptly transferred to the University of Alberta hospital in Edmonton.

“His first night there, they gave him a 20 per cent chance of making it through the night,” Kelly remembers. “They said if he lived through that, things would steadily improve, probably.”

Jesperson had developed hemolytic uremic syndrome, or hamburger disease, which comes from food or water contaminated with E. coli bacteria.

The burger also gave him thrombotic thrombocytopenic purpura, a condition that causes tiny blood clots throughout the body.

And doctors determined that he had suffered a mini-stroke at one point, as his organs reacted to the bacteria.

Jesperson was hospitalized almost four weeks, undergoing dialysis and being hooked up to a machine that withdraws plasma and replaces it.

After his release, it took him almost a year to regain his physical strength.

“If I went out for some fresh air, 10 to 20 steps and I’d have to sit on the sidewalk,” he says. “I was just exhausted, and I couldn’t work for quite some time, and it was pretty rough.”

Jesperson, who always enjoyed a rare steak, says he wasn’t aware of the dangers of uncooked hamburger meat before that.

“I’m a big fella, fairly hardy and that, and it really knocked the piss right out of me,” he says.

“I lost an incredible amount of weight. I was a walking-dead kind of a deal and it really took the good right out of me.”

These days, Jesperson gets nervous when he sees people served burgers that are a little pink.

If he grills one himself, he “cooks the bejeezus out of it.”

His advice is to do the same, and not to be afraid to send undercooked burgers back at a restaurant.

Dr. Peter Daley would definitely say “hear, hear!” to that.

He’s an assistant professor of medicine at Memorial University who specializes in infectious diseases.

“If you like your burgers bloody, you are taking a risk with your health,” he says.

Hamburger is dangerous, Daley explains, because bacteria on the surface of the meat is ground through it.

That’s why a patty needs to be cooked in the middle, unlike a steak, where the germs remain on the surface and are killed on the grill.

Daley advises barbecueing burgers until the internal temperature is at least 65 C.

“It’s an important public health message that eating uncooked meat is risky,” he says.

Twitter: @SteveBartlett_