Dad, Is It Legal to Serve Raw Meat?

Logo for Legal Crap My Kids Ask MeI think we were at Noodles & Company eating noodles and a side of meatballs when Max came up with this one. My initial reaction was, sure, if there’s a market for it. There’s steak tartare, isn’t there? And the cannibal sandwich in Milwaukee, made with raw beef and onions. Then he asked “what about raw chicken?” Then I wasn’t so sure.

The Raw Meat Code

Welcome to the federal food code. All 50 states have adopted a version of the federal food code, whether it is a pre-1993 version or the most recent 2009 version. Minnesota is old school—it uses the 1997 version, one of only four states still using a federal food code older than 1998. One of those states, South Carolina, appears to be the only state currently that does not—at least by law—allow restaurants to serve up raw or rare meat. And until recently its neighbor North Carolina did not allow the serving of rare or even medium-rare burgers or steaks, though in 2012 it “modernized” and adopted the current federal food code.

The current federal food code provides:

raw animal food such as raw egg, raw fish, raw-marinated fish, raw molluscan shellfish, or steak tartare; or a partially cooked food such as lightly cooked fish, soft cooked eggs, or rare meat . . . may be served or offered for sale upon consumer request or selection in a ready-to-eat form if:

  1. . . . the food establishment serves a population that is not a highly susceptible population;
  2. The food, if served or offered for service by consumer selection from a children’s menu, does not contain comminuted meat; and
  3. The consumer is informed . . . that to ensure its safety, the food should be cooked . . . .

Minnesota’s food code is not quite as strict and simply allows the serving of “raw animal food . . . when the food is prepared in that fashion at the request of the consumer.” Minn. R. § 4626.0340. Unlike many states that have adopted more recent versions of the federal food code, there is no requirement in Minnesota that a restaurant inform consumers about potential problems in eating raw animal food, such as an advisory you would see in Wisconsin or Ohio if you order a cannibal sandwich (made of raw ground round, egg, and onions on rye bread):

Whether dining out or preparing food at home, consuming raw or undercooked meats, poultry, seafood, shellfish, or eggs may increase your risk of foodborne illness.

So, yes, it’s legal to serve raw animal food at a Minnesota restaurant, so long as it’s specifically requested that way. Bring on the rare burgers, seared beef tenderloin, and steak tartare.

But chicken? The practical reality of putting raw chicken on a menu—not to say that a consumer would request it—is another matter. Who wants to eat “slippery, limp, bloodless, room temperature” raw chicken?

Well, maybe the Japanese, who enjoy torisashi, which is sliced raw chicken served sashimi style. Presumbably, you could serve that in Minnesota, though I am not aware of a restaurant that does. It is at least served at a Japanese restaurant in Chester, New York and at Yakitori Totto in New York City where “Non-Japanese diners are asked if they really want to eat it raw, but the staff’s friendly professionalism reassures one that, as with trapeze artists or brain surgeons, whatever they are doing must be safe.”

Raw Meat, Self-Serve Style

A “consumer self-service operation” cannot offer raw animal food for self-service, which roughly translates to “no raw chicken at Old Country Buffet salad bars.” Exceptions to this, however, include “ready-to-eat” raw animal foods such as sushi and raw shellfish, as well as “ready-to-cook individual portions for immediate cooking and consumption on the premises including consumer-cooked meats or consumer-selected ingredients for Mongolian barbecue.” Minn. R. § 4626.0330 (2012). But in most states other than Minnesota, you still have to warn the “self-serve” consumer with an obligatory “raw meat” advisory. And, interestingly, the code does not define “Mongolian barbecue,” a Taiwanese invention from the 1970s that is neither Mongolian in origin nor closely related to barbecue. But at least it appears to be the only mention of Mongolian barbecue in the entire US Code. That’s something.

Legally offering up torisashi at a self-serve salad bar in Minnesota or other states is debatable. I’m not sure it qualifies as a “ready-to-eat” food—defined as food “in a form that is edible without washing, cooking, or additional preparation by the food establishment or the consumer and that is reasonably expected to be consumed in that form.” Maybe in Japan or New York, but I don’t think chicken in Minnesota is “reasonably expected” to be consumed in sliced raw form. Lye-soaked raw gelatinous whitefish, sure—that’s Norwegian lutefisk. Duh.

So, raw chicken at a restaurant in Minnesota: legally yes, if you request it (and the restaurant has the cojones to serve it). Self-serve raw chicken to be cooked Mongolian barbecue style: legal. Raw chicken at a salad bar: no. Unless, perhaps, it is torisashi—and even that’s stretching things.

Gregory D. Luce is the editor of Bitter Lawyer. Among other things, he writes Legal Crap My Kids Ask Me, answering legal and pseudo-legal questions he actually receives from his kids. God help you if you think any of these answers constitute legal advice.

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