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Food Thermometers Assure Better, Safer Burgers

PULLMAN, Wash. — You can’t judge a burger by its color.

Research done at Washington State University has verified that judging the doneness and safety of a cooked hamburger patty by its color isn’t a reliable test. Hamburgers that are brown all the way through can still harbor dangerous, even deadly, bacteria.

“For years people have been told that when a hamburger is brown throughout, it’s done,” says Val Hillers, retired WSU Extension food safety specialist. “But research found that a quarter of the burgers tested had not reached a safe internal temperature even though they were brown throughout.”

Hillers says that variations in the meat can result in some burgers remaining pink in the middle although they are cooked to a safe temperature and others appearing to be brown inside when they are not completely cooked.

“Short of cooking them until they resemble charcoal, the best way to assure that burgers and other thin cuts of meat have been cooked to a safe temperature is to test them with a food thermometer,” Hillers says. “Using a food thermometer means you can be sure your meats have reached a safe temperature without overcooking them.”

With the Memorial Day holiday and the summer barbeque season fast approaching, a number of grocery stores in Washington and Idaho will help deliver that message to consumers, according to Hillers.

Haggen Foods and Top Food stores in Washington state, and Albertson’s stores in Idaho, will feature displays and place information cards in their meat sections in time for Memorial Day on the proper use of food thermometers, especially when grilling.

The information will focus on instant-read food thermometers that work best with thin meats such as hamburger patties and chicken breasts, according to Sandy McCurdy, University of Idaho Extension food safety specialist.

McCurdy and Hillers teamed up to research food thermometer use and availability, and consumer attitudes about using them. With their team they developed educational materials on the importance and proper use of food thermometers, including a series of recipe cards that will be available in the participating stores.

“With burgers and other thin meats it’s best to insert the thermometer probe from the side so that it’s deep enough to get an accurate reading,” says Hillers. “And even though they are called ‘instant read’ you need to allow 10 to 30 seconds to get an accurate temperature reading.”

There are two types of instant-read food thermometers commonly available, dial and digital, according to McCurdy. And, she says, advances in technology mean the cost of thermometers is coming down.

“Dial thermometers are now available for as little as $3.99 and up to about $19,” says McCurdy. “I prefer the digital thermometers but they’re a little more expensive, running from about $9 up to about $30.”

“It’s really a minor investment when you consider the safety of the food you feed your family,” she says.

Additional information about food thermometer use is available for order from WSU Extension. Materials include recipes with directions for using a thermometer when cooking hamburger patties, pork chops, chicken breasts, sausage patties and ground turkey patties. A brochure with additional information about using food thermometers and a video illustrating proper thermometer use are also available by going to and entering “thermometer” in the search box.

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Media Contacts

Val Hillers, WSU retired Extension food safety specialist, 360-678-5201
Sandy McCurdy, U of I Extension food safety specialist, 208-885-6972