How Safe Is Chicken Tartare? A Saga of Discovery

Categories: Ask the Critic
Ippuku_Chicken_Tartare.jpg
CAKES A./Flickr
Chicken tartare at Ippuku: Just looking at this photo makes me crave it again.
In the week following simultaneous restaurant reviews in the Chronicle and SF Weekly of Ippuku, a Japanese restaurant in Berkeley, the Chronicle's comments sections filled with disgust over a dish that both Chron critic Michael Bauer and I loved: (raw) chicken tartare. Both of us quizzed the chef, Christian Geideman, about the safety of the dish. Both of us were told that since salmonella lives only in the digestive tracts of chickens, and since Geideman dipped strips of raw chicken breast meat in boiling water for 30 seconds before cutting it up and seasoning it, he'd eliminated the threat of salmonella contamination.

Back in those days ― near the dawn of the Bronze Age, it now seems ― I thought I might call around to the appropriate agencies to reassure readers that eating Ippuku's chicken tartare was, indeed, as safe as it was delicious. I started out with the Berkeley Environmental Health Department and the USDA, who told me to contact the CDC. Well, it was the Friday before Columbus Day weekend, so I left a few messages and turned my attention to other matters, basically letting the question drop.

A week later, Manuel Ramirez, director of the Berkeley Environmental Health Department, called me back. And that's when I realized the implications of what I'd done.

"So what's the name of the restaurant?" he wanted to know. "We'll want to go check that out." I asked if anything was wrong. Ramirez told me that section 114004 of the California Health and Safety Code required restaurants to cook poultry to an internal temperature of 165 degrees for at least 15 seconds to ensure that salmonella, campylobacter, and other pathogens were killed.

What about steak? I asked. Well, said Ramirez, checking the code, the allowed temperature was slightly lower but the meat still needed to be fully cooked. And beef tartare? I pressed. Sushi? Was chicken tartare treated differently in the health code from other raw meats?

Ramirez referred me to the California Health and Safety Code online and said, "If the restaurant is varying from what the code allows they would need to put together a HACCP [Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points] plan."

I believe that local and state health departments probably save the lives of millions of eaters every year. I also realized I'd just tattled on chef Geideman. Galvanized by a sense of urgency, I took up the search again.

The first piece of good news: After poring over the state code, which makes Robbe-Grillet read like US Weekly, I found the section dealing with tartare. Section 114093  states:
Notwithstanding Section 114004 ... ready-to-eat foods made from or containing eggs, comminuted meat, or single pieces of meat, including beef, veal, lamb, pork, poultry, fish, and seafood, that are raw or have not been thoroughly cooked as specified in Section 114004 may be served if either of the following requirements is met:
(a) The consumer specifically orders that the food be individually prepared less than thoroughly cooked.
(b) The food facility notifies the consumer, orally or in writing, at the time of ordering, that the food is raw or less than thoroughly cooked.
Ippuku had met (b), so it seemed the restaurant was fully in the clear. That didn't, however, answer my initial question. A round of phone calls ― the CDC, the FDA, back to the USDA ― finally put me in touch with Kathy Bernard, spokeswoman for the USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline. I explained Geideman's preparation to her and asked about its safety.
 
"We give recommendations to people that, to make sure that poultry is safe to eat, they cook the chicken to an internal temperature of 165 degrees," Bernard responded.

"What about steak or fish tartare?" I asked. She repeated her statement.

"Sushi?" I asked. Again: no. So I said, "Let me confirm: The USDA's position is that no one should eat meat or fish unless it's fully cooked?"

"That's right." Her tone was firm.

So glad to hear that millions of Americans flagrantly defy our nation's food safety recommendations every day. A few more days, a few more phone calls, and I finally found a man I wished I'd talked to in the first place. Harshavardhan Thippareddi is associate professor of food science at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. When I explained Geideman's treatment of the chicken breast and asked if a 30-second plunge in boiling water would kill all the pathogens on the surface of the meat, Thippareddi said ... no. Not only would the surface temperature of the chicken stay too low to kill all pathogenic bacteria, the knife could have slipped and introduced salmonella to the interior of the chunk of meat. "It may be possible to REDUCE the risk (probability), but may not ELIMINATE the risk," he reiterated in an e-mail afterward.

Again, I asked him how chicken tartare would compare to steak tartare. "Actually, the risk is lower in beef," Thippareddi said. "The normal percentage of beef carcasses contaminated with E. coli O157:H7 is 0.1 to 0.3 percent. In poultry, the prevalence of salmonella is higher ― the legal limit for poultry processors is that less than 20 percent of the birds may be contaminated. In some processors, they may have lower rates ― like 5 or 7 percent."

"But those rates are probably for confined chickens," I countered. "These chickens are pasture raised, and probably organic. Does that make a difference?"

"We'd like to think it does, but sadly, it doesn't," he replied.

So Thippareddi says he wouldn't eat the chicken tartare. But as he stated in his last e-mail, "We all take risks in life. I suppose this is one of those 'acceptable' risks for some of us. However, I don't think you will ever find me eating steak tartare or sushi [knowing the risks]."

I sent a draft of this post to Christian Geideman yesterday morning and asked if he would be willing to talk to me about the issue, but haven't heard back. In the meantime, I do eat beef tartare and sushi ― quite frequently, in fact ― and since the safety of Ippuku's chicken tartare is ultimately a question of risk tolerance, it's a delicious risk I'll take again. I wish my research had yielded the kind of assurance I'd hoped for. Given Thippareddi's caution, though, it seems prudent to recommend anyone who has a compromised immune system avoid chicken tartare ― as well as beef carpaccio, kitfo, salmon tartare, or sushi.

Follow us on Twitter: @sfoodie. Follow me at @JonKauffman.

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Ippuku

2130 Center, Berkeley, CA

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