"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 like the restaurant was fully in the clear. That didn't, however, answer my initial question. A round of phone calls — the CDC, the Food and Drug Administration, 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," she 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 whether 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 into 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," he 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 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 and asked whether 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 that anyone who has a compromised immune system should avoid chicken tartare — as well as beef carpaccio, kitfo, salmon tartare, or sushi.

« Previous Page
My Voice Nation Help
Sort: Newest | Oldest
©2014 SF Weekly, LP, All rights reserved.