Raw meat sandwich tradition called potentially deadly by experts, health officials: It's a 'bad idea'

Health officials in Wisconsin are getting attention after warning people against eating raw meat sandwiches this holiday season.

“For many Wisconsin families, raw meat sandwiches are a holiday tradition, but eating raw meat is NEVER recommended because of the bacteria it can contain,” the Wisconsin Department of Health Services wrote on Twitter. “Ground beef should always be cooked to 160 degrees!”

While plenty of people took to Twitter to express disgust and disbelief that this is actually a thing, others insisted that these so-called cannibal sandwiches, or tiger sandwiches, are real — and, some insist, delicious.

“Okay so since The Discourse today is about cannibal sandwiches, one of my favorite holiday treats, I just want to CLARIFY that they’re NOT made with PRE-PACKAGED RAW BEEF,” one person wrote. “You have to buy the meat specially prepared, similar to beef tartare, so that it is safer to consume raw.”

Another called the dish “absolutely delicious,” adding, “Xmas tradition for our family. Raw beef, onions on rye bread. Little salt and pepper, mmmmmm!!!”

Someone else wrote that their family “did this every Christmas eve. Raw beef (that Oma ground up herself) and onion on homemade rye. So gross, but they loved it.”

More than a few said there was nothing to worry about, with one insisting that “my family always had this growing up. We were fine.”

What are cannibal sandwiches, exactly? Recipes seem to vary slightly, but, in general, cannibal sandwiches consist of raw ground beef, usually seasoned with spices and onions, according to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). It’s served on bread or a cracker and is often an appetizer, according to the Wisconsin Historical Society.

The Wisconsin Department of Health is warning residents to skip the "cannibal sandwich" — a dish featuring raw ground beef, often seasoned with spices and onions and served on bread or a cracker — this year. (Getty Images)
The Wisconsin Department of Health is warning residents to skip the "cannibal sandwich" — a dish featuring raw ground beef, often seasoned with spices and onions and served on bread or a cracker — this year. (Getty Images)

Cannibal sandwiches are a “longtime Milwaukee tradition,” according to Wisconsin Public Radio. In fact, it’s so popular that one butcher shop told the outlet that the store sells more than 1,000 pounds of raw beef and about 250 pounds of raw onions during the holiday season, just for cannibal sandwiches.

But the exact origins are a bit of a mystery. Several people on Twitter chalked it up to a German tradition, but there are no more details. The Wisconsin Historical Society also says that it’s traditionally served at holiday parties “and other festive gatherings” in the Milwaukee area.

What can happen if you eat this?

Despite people insisting on Twitter that they’ve had cannibal sandwiches and were fine, this is not a safe food to eat, food safety specialist Benjamin Chapman, a professor at North Carolina State University, tells Yahoo Life. “This is probably one of the riskier foods that are out there,” he says.

Donald W. Schaffner, a professor at Rutgers University who researches quantitative microbial risk assessment and cross-contamination, agrees. “This sandwich is a bad idea,” he tells Yahoo Life.

Darin Detwiler, director of the Regulatory Affairs of Food and Food Industries program at Northeastern University, tells Yahoo Life that people should “choose literally any other option” when it comes to holiday snacks.

“The raw meat has the pathogen mixed into the center,” he says. “Deciding not to cook it is a huge risk as this removes the only effective kill step for pathogens.” Many of those germs can cause diarrhea and abdominal cramping, but some strains, like E. coli O157:H7, can cause severe illness, especially in vulnerable populations, he says. “Young children and older adults have a greater risk of developing a life-threatening form of kidney failure, resulting in hospitalization, hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS), kidney failure, the need for kidney dialysis and even death,” Detwiler says.

Chapman agrees that it’s not worth the risk. “E. coli O157:H7 is bad news,” he says. “You really want to avoid it.”

It’s not just bacteria that’s a potential issue: “Parasites could be a concern as well,” Dr. Zhaoping Li, a professor of medicine at the David Geffen School of Medicine and director of the Center for Human Nutrition, tells Yahoo Life.

Some people tend to think that eating foods raw make them healthier, but that’s not the case with meat, Li says. “It’s definitely not healthy and can make you very sick,” she says.

Foodborne illness outbreaks linked to cannibal sandwiches aren’t a theoretical thing: They’ve happened several times in the past.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention detailed an outbreak that happened in Wisconsin in 2013. There were 17 people sickened after having cannibal sandwiches, and eight received medical care. The CDC also notes that there were large outbreaks of foodborne illness tied to cannibal sandwiches in 1972, 1978 and 1994. “Despite ongoing outreach efforts addressing the dangers associated with consuming undercooked or raw ground beef, this regional holiday tradition continues to be associated with outbreaks,” the CDC wrote.

Of course, Schaffner says it’s possible to eat a cannibal sandwich and be OK. “This is because you’ve been lucky enough to start with a cut of meat that did not contain pathogens, or the level of pathogens were so low that your body’s immune system took care of it,” he says. You could also have fever and diarrhea “for a few days and then recover,” he says. “Of course,” he adds, “the worst scenario would be that you die as a result of foodborne disease.”

“I don’t like to tell people what to do when it comes to food and food safety, but I can tell you that I would not eat this kind of sandwich,” Schaffner says. “Especially so this year since, if a trip to the hospital was required, they are already overloaded with COVID-19 in many places.”

Several people on Twitter said that the risk of foodborne illness is lower if you grind your own meat or have a butcher grind it on-site, but Chapman says “that’s a myth.”

“You have the same risk associated with ground meat regardless of where you get it from. If you don’t cook it, it’s a risky meal,” he says.

Detwiler urges people to rethink this tradition. “If you think you are a healthy adult and you wish to put yourself at risk, you are playing a Russian roulette that is more dangerous than you wish to acknowledge,” he says. “Rethink your options and traditions. Make eating healthy options a family tradition. Eat as if you want to enjoy the holidays this year.”

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