For a lot of us, this time of year means eating a slight variation on the same meal we’ve eaten pretty much every December that we’ve spent on this planet. Holiday traditions are why an estimated 10 million Christmas turkeys will be served in the UK next week. Holiday traditions are why you’re already dreading that plate of dry ham at your grandmother’s house. And holiday traditions are why a handful of people in Wisconsin will probably have diarrhea this weekend.
Earlier this week, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) issued a warning to Wisconsinites and other midwesterners who break out the cannibal sandwiches every December. Not from Midwest? For those of you who are unfamiliar with cannibal sandwiches: they’re seasoned ground beef, topped with onions and served raw on bread or crackers. “The dish, also known as ‘tiger meat,’ or ‘steak tartare,’ is dangerous because it is uncooked, meaning it can still contain harmful bacteria that can cause foodborne illness, which are only killed by cooking ground beef to 160°F,” the agency wrote.
The cannibal sandwich has been a Wisconsin tradition for decades. Milwaukee historian John Gurda told CBS News that the sandwiches have been served at weddings (including his own), funerals, and holiday parties in the city’s German, Polish, and other ethnic communities since the 19th century.
But, perhaps unsurprisingly, raw ground beef sandwiches—by any name—have been connected to outbreaks of E. coli and Salmonella in 1986, 1988, 1989, 1990, 1994, 2012 and 2013. The Centers for Disease Control has warned against eating the sandwiches in previous Decembers, and has written about their connection to E. coli in its own Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. (They’ve also been featured on a food safety attorney’s website, which has the appetizing URL of FoodPoisonJournal.com).
The warnings don’t seem to keep people from going full cannibal. In 2013—just days after the CDC had issued another official DON’T EAT THAT—one Milwaukee butcher said he expected to sell between 1,100 and 1,400 pounds of the specially ground sirloin. “We have a lot of older German and Polish clientele. That seems to be the key,” he told the Wisconsin State Journal. “We grind it fresh when someone orders it. We grind whatever amount they want.”
Although the butchers take extra precautions when they’re preparing meat that will be eaten raw, the USDA has a totally different suggestion. “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 160°F, and serve it on top of bread or crackers,” it wrote. “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.”
Awww, come on. That’s part of the tradition, too!