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Filet américain: A Belgian specialty

Filet américain is a beloved delicacy in Belgium and enjoyed by millions of Belgians and visitors to Belgium. Many Belgian eateries feature filet américain or variations of it on their menus. Belgian supermarkets and butchers regularly offer filet américain, often pre-packaged for convenience. But if you don’t know what it is, here is a brief introduction to filet américain – along with a health warning!

My first encounter with filet américain

I remember my first exposure to this specialty over a business lunch with a colleague in Brussels, thirty or so years ago. I noticed that he ordered “américain.”

“What’s américain?” I asked him.

“Filet américain: the best ever filling for a sandwich.”

“But what is it exactly?”

“Minced beef. It’s gorgeous.”

“So like a beefburger?”

“Hell no! A beefburger’s cooked. Filet américain is RAW!”

Never having knowingly eaten raw meat, and having grown up with the maxim to always cook meat thoroughly before consuming it, this was rather a surprising revelation to me.

What is filet américain?

Filet américain is made from finely minced or ground raw beef. It’s typically seasoned with a variety of ingredients, including mustard, egg yolks, capers, onions, Worcestershire sauce, parsley, pickles, and salt & pepper. Sometimes, it might also include anchovies, ketchup, or Tabasco sauce. The mixture is often served on bread or toast – when it’s called Toast Cannibal in Belgium. In other European countries filet américain is called Steak Tartare.

Filet américain
Filet américain for lunch © Le Zinneke

The health risks of filet américain

It can’t be denied that eating filet américain carries certain health risks due to the potential presence of harmful bacteria, parasites, and pathogens in the raw beef, including:

  • E. coli: Can cause severe gastrointestinal illness and, in some cases, lead to kidney failure.
  • Salmonella: Another bacterium that can cause severe food poisoning.
  • Listeria: Can be particularly dangerous for pregnant women, the elderly, and those with weakened immune systems.
  • Toxoplasma gondii: A parasite that can cause toxoplasmosis, especially risky for pregnant women and immunocompromised individuals.

Have illnesses been recorded?

I can’t find any specific data on illnesses or deaths directly attributed to eating filet américain specifically, although there are frequent instances of foodborne illnesses related to the consumption of raw or undercooked beef, which can include dishes like filet américain.

For example, there have been numerous E. coli outbreaks linked to the consumption of raw or undercooked beef worldwide. E. coli O157:H7 is a particularly dangerous strain that can cause severe illness and even death. Raw beef dishes have also been implicated in outbreaks of Salmonella. A 2022 study in the Czech Republic into the prevalence of Listeria in vacuum-packed steak tartare concluded that “Although the number of Listeria monocytogenes in the steak tartare samples complied with the EU food safety criterion, steak tartare at the retail level can be considered as a source of Listeria monocytogenes and should be approached with caution.”

What do the food agencies say?

Given the potential risks, food safety authorities typically advise caution when consuming raw meat dishes such as filet américain. The preparation and handling of the meat are crucial to minimizing the risks of contamination and subsequent illness. They suggest that to reduce the risk of illness when consuming filet américain, it’s important to:

  • Use fresh, high-quality beef: Ensure that the meat is very fresh and of the highest quality, preferably from a reputable butcher.
  • Ensure proper handling and hygiene: Maintain strict hygiene standards during preparation, including thorough hand washing and using clean utensils.
  • Keep it in the refrigerator: Keep the meat properly refrigerated at all times until just before serving.
  • Consume promptly: Eat the dish soon after preparation to minimize the growth of any harmful bacteria.
  • Consider freezing: Some experts recommend freezing the meat before preparation to kill potential parasites.

So there you are. Maybe I have whetted your appetite for trying out filet américain. Perhaps, like me, you’ll avoid it like the plague. I would be interested in your views, either below or via the contact page.

P.S. My colleague is still very much alive. And is still eating filet américain.

26 thoughts on “Filet américain: A Belgian specialty”

    1. It seems to be from a fable that Americans eat their meat raw, which given their enthusiasm for barbecues and grills, doesn’t really make much sense.

  1. Hahaha! The paranoia of some. ?

    I do like steak tartare / filet américain but in smaller portions. I’d rather have it on bread ? than as as meal with fries.

  2. One of my grandfathers was fond of steak tartare. I sampled it a number of times and thought it was delicious. I am pretty sure my grandmother persuaded him to only do this with irradiated beef for safety’s sake. I’m think in some regions of Germany, you can still get a sort of pate or sandwich filling made from finely-ground raw pork, but I have never tried that.

      1. Apparently the Germans are so meticulous in their handling of meat, they have no concerns about trichinosis, etc. but nonetheless people my age don’t eat this anymore. And it’s bad luck to take pigs aboard a ship, so I agree, that raw pork ship has sailed.

  3. There is nothing better than a portion of Americain or tartare with a raw egg yolk, salt, pepper, onion, capers, Worcestershire sauce, mayonnaise and ketchup and delicious crispy Belgian fries.

    The pork version in Germany is called Mett. And that is also very delicious. The minced raw pork in Germany tastes much better than in Belgium. The structure is different. I assume more fat.
    Mett (German: [m?t]), also known as Hackepeter (Northern Germany, Eastern Germany, Bavaria and Berlin), is a preparation of minced raw pork seasoned with salt and black pepper that is popular in Germany. It is frequently spread on halves of a bread roll, with raw onion optionally on top.

  4. I also remember eating ‘Toast cannibale’ (What’s in a name?) often as a child at my grandparents’ and home.
    The same pure ground beef with pepper and a little salt. Some chopped gherkins and as fine a shallot as possible. Salted capers, rinsed well. Some chopped parsley.
    A slice of toast and spread with butter. Place the meat on top and then the rest of the ingredients, depending on your personal taste.
    Good appetite, it’s another delicacy; but not for the faint-hearted!

  5. When visiting my gran parents in Germany, our first meal was always Mett with onions on top and lots of ground pepper. I’m still alive!

    1. Ha indeed Mark! That was a big culture shock when I first moved to the Netherlands. But it soon became perfectly normal, and even preferred over tomato ketchup!

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