Why Veggie Burgers Must be Fully Cooked for Food Safety

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I’m looking at a box of frozen Boca-brand vegetarian burgers on my desk. I need to write fast because the box tells me three times to keep vegetarian burgers frozen. I also hope my slowly dying range doesn’t go kaput today. Three more warnings tell me to cook the vegetarian burgers thoroughly.

One warning reads “Product must be cooked thoroughly to 160 degrees F for food safety and quality.

To be sure, undercooked vegetarian burgers don’t taste very good (don’t let carnivores throw your vegetarian burger on the grill for a token 30 second just to get it out of the way and cook the meat). But would I endanger my life by an uncooked patty of soy protein, wheat gluten and various trace flavorings? I set out to find the answer.

I contacted both Boca and Morningstar, the biggest vegetarian burger companies, about this issue. Boca responded to my email, but only reiterated the need to cook the products. The company did not explain why. To the Internet!

The United States federal government says food must be heated to 160 degrees F to kill bacteria. “Make sure it’s heated to 160 degrees F for at least 5 minutes when you cook it,” decrees the U.S. Department of Agriculture in a list of tips about food bugs. “That kills any bacteria that might be on it.

Based on these guidelines, most U.S. states require restaurants to cook food to 160 degrees if it is being cooked at all. Mostly, this applies to meat for the bacteria animal flesh can harbor.

Likewise, some vegetarian burgers (particularly most homemade recipes) contain eggs, and eggs need to be cooked thoroughly to kill salmonella, a nasty bacteria that can cause diarrhea, stomach cramps, throwing-up, fever, chills, sweats and fatigue.

Soy protein and wheat gluten, the two main ingredients in Boca’s popular vegan burgers, are very unlikely to harbor salmonella or other bacteria, but it is not impossible. In fact, soy can promote intestinal health and fight dangerous bacteria in your guts when it is fermented, as in tofu.

Salmonella contamination is largely a concern in your kitchen, if the vegetarian burgers are placed on a countertop, cutting board or plate that may be infected with salmonella.

Furthermore, the “less than 2 percent” ingredients in Boca vegetarian burgers include dried onions. Most vegetables can harbor listeria, which can cause long-term symptoms similar to meningitis.

On a somewhat related note, the Boca Website notes the company is looking for recyclable or biodegradable packaging. The outer boxes are recyclable, but the inner plastic wraps for individual vegetarian burgers cannot be recycled. Biodegradable, safe packaging plastic is available, though. In 2002, the Delta Farm Press announced the creation of a soy-based plastic that is biodegradable. Whole Foods and other firms also use a safe, biodegradable corn-derived plastic.

April 14 update: A Boca representative responded to my query and essentially confirmed the above information.