Please don’t eat the raw meat sandwich.
That message from Wisconsin’s health authorities, however straightforward, set off a wave of interest and even confusion outside the state this week about its so-called cannibal sandwich: Is this really a tradition? Is it just raw meat? And who is eating it?
“Our dirty little secret is out,” said Anna Altschwager, assistant director of guest experience at the Wisconsin Historical Society. “The health department is right to say what it said. Will it fall on a lot of deaf ears? Yeah.”
The warning from Wisconsin’s Department of Health Services started to draw attention in the days after it was sent, almost a week ago, amid coronavirus updates and various safety tips. “For many #Wisconsin families, raw meat sandwiches are a #holiday tradition, but eating raw meat is NEVER recommended,” it said on Twitter, with a photo of ground beef, onions and a sprig of something green.
Although people eat raw meat in dishes the world over, the notion of a raw meat sandwich caught people’s attention outside the Midwest, including producers of “The Daily Show,” which introduced it to audiences watching on TV and social media. Health experts, meanwhile, emphatically agreed: Raw meat is not safe to consume.
Any raw meat has the potential for contamination, but raw ground beef has many qualities that make it especially harmful, said Elsa Murano, a food scientist and a former undersecretary for food safety in the Department of Agriculture. Although there are required testing procedures, they are not foolproof in ensuring that raw beef is free of E. coli, she said, and it’s even worse if you’re grinding it at home.
“Picture a cow that gets slaughtered, and the side of the beef is sliced into cuts,” Murano said. “That surface is what has the contaminant. So if you’re cooking a steak on the surface, you’re killing the organism. But if instead of cooking it you grind it, you’re redistributing that contamination throughout the product.”
The U.S. Department of Agriculture, like Wisconsin’s health officials, has been trying to inform the public about the hazards of cannibal sandwiches, which are also called tiger meat or wildcat.
“With each holiday season, there are hundreds of people in the Midwest who are sickened after eating cannibal sandwiches — a dish featuring raw ground beef, often seasoned with spices and onions and served on bread or a cracker,” the Department of Agriculture said in a blog post in 2018.
The post, although titled, “Tips for Eating Cannibal Sandwiches This Holiday Season,” essentially offered one tip: Either cook the meat well or don’t eat it.
“If cannibal sandwiches are a tradition in your home, try this safe alternative: Cook the ground beef with the same spices and toppings, until it reaches 160F, and serve it on top of bread or crackers,” it said. “You may be surprised to find that it tastes better when cooked! Not to mention, you won’t be risking a trip to the hospital with every mouthful.”
There have been eight outbreaks in that state linked to the consumption of raw ground beef since 1986, according to the Wisconsin Department of Health Services.
It’s not clear how many Wisconsinites observe a holiday tradition of eating raw meat, but Murano said that the warnings applied well beyond the state. The steak tartare found in high-end restaurants around the world is similarly unsafe, she said, as is Italy’s carpaccio (thinly sliced raw beef), Amsterdam’s ossenworst (raw beef, traditionally smoked) and Germany’s zwiebelmett (minced raw pork with onion).
“Identity is a big deal in Wisconsin, and food is such a great way to express it and a great way to retain it,” Altschwager, of the historical society, said. “Retaining Germanness in Wisconsin has been a big part of our story, a big part of our politics.”
Cannibal sandwiches, she said, reflect the broader phenomenon of immigration: people bringing elements of their cultural identity to the United States and sometimes changing them — or clinging to them — in ways that contrast to the country of origin. Altschwager likened cannibal sandwiches to lutefisk, dried cod that is reconstituted with lye, a tradition among some Scandinavian Americans.
“Hardly anyone in Norway would touch that stuff,” she said. “It’s not part of their contemporary cultural identity, but it’s superimportant to Norwegians in the Northwest because it was an iconic food at the time of their displacement, so they clung onto it. Cannibal sandwiches are an expression of that same kind of thing. And holidays are when you see it the most.”
But health experts said it was better for people to let go of unsafe traditions than to risk a calamitous sandwich. (Wisconsin’s health agency also warned residents not to eat raw dough or cookie or cake batter.)
“Do they want to have a Christmas with severe stomach cramps, bloody diarrhea and vomiting?” Murano said. “And possible hemolytic uremic syndrome and as a complication end up in the hospital with kidney failure? I’d rather cook my ground beef, please.”
Some Wisconsinites are unmoved, including David Jagler, 64, owner of TownLine Market, a deli and butcher shop in Wausau. Jagler, who has become a minor celebrity since he appeared on “The Daily Show” taking a bite of raw meat, said he sells about 300 to 400 pounds per day of the meat for cannibal sandwiches around the holidays.
At the deli, where Jagler has been working for 48 years, since he was a teenager, the wildcat is on sale with a warning label that says it should be cooked, leaving the choice to customers.
“It’s a free country,” he said. “We should be able to do what we want.”
Jagler, who is of German and Polish descent, said that he had been eating wildcat since he was a child and that it was a tradition passed to him from his father. He has no plans of ending the tradition at his home, where the wildcat is just another item spread out with the chicken wings, sausage and cheese.
But while he said the latest health warnings will not change his own holiday tradition, Jagler said he was willing to heed other advisories. He used to put raw eggs over the wildcat until he learned that doing so wasn’t safe.
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