Eating Ground Beef Is Still A Big Health Gamble

More likely than not, that single hamburger patty or package you bought from the supermarket, restaurant or fast food joint contains “meat product” from hundreds of slaughtered cows gathered from around the world. One result of that practice is that major Class 1 (you could die) ground beef recalls are on the rise. Just this past August 825,769 pounds of Salmonella contaminated beef was recalled from Arizona, California, Colorado & Utah.

Taking a page from Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals, the NYTimes today tracks the E. coli-tainted burger that paralyzed 22-year-old Stephanie Smith in 2007. The Times story a long, under-reported and vitally important. Stephanie was just one of 940 people sickened in an October 2007 outbreak. A sampling of what the Times found:

  • The frozen hamburgers that the Smiths ate, which were made by the food giant Cargill, were labeled “American Chef’s Selection Angus Beef Patties.” Yet confidential grinding logs and other Cargill records show that the hamburgers were made from a mix of slaughterhouse trimmings and a mash-like product derived from scraps that were ground together at a plant in Wisconsin. The ingredients came from slaughterhouses in Nebraska, Texas and Uruguay, and from a South Dakota company that processes fatty trimmings and treats them with ammonia to kill bacteria.
  • “Ground beef is not a completely safe product,” said Dr. Jeffrey Bender, a food safety expert at the University of Minnesota who helped develop systems for tracing E. coli contamination. He said that while outbreaks had been on the decline, “unfortunately it looks like we are going a bit in the opposite direction.”
  • The meat industry treats much of its practices and the ingredients in ground beef as trade secrets. While the Department of Agriculture has inspectors posted in plants and has access to production records, it also guards those secrets.
  • Within weeks of the Cargill outbreak in 2007, U.S.D.A. officials swept across the country, conducting spot checks at 224 meat plants to assess their efforts to combat E. coli. Although inspectors had been monitoring these plants all along, officials found serious problems at 55 that were failing to follow their own safety plans.
  • One Cargill source was a supplier that turns fatty trimmings into what it calls “fine lean textured beef.” The company, Beef Products Inc., said it bought meat that averages between 50 percent and 70 percent fat, including “any small pieces of fat derived from the normal breakdown of the beef carcass.” It warms the trimmings, removes the fat in a centrifuge and treats the remaining product with ammonia to kill E. coli. With seven million pounds produced each week, the company’s product is widely used in hamburger meat sold by grocers and fast-food restaurants and served in the federal school lunch program.
  • Costco is one of the few big producers that tests trimmings for E. coli before grinding, a practice it adopted after a New York woman was sickened in 1998 by its hamburger meat, prompting a recall… Costco said it had found E. coli in foreign and domestic beef trimmings and pressured suppliers to fix the problem. But even Costco, with its huge buying power, said it had met resistance from some big slaughterhouses. “Tyson will not supply us,” Mr. Wilson said. “They don’t want us to test.”
  • The food safety officer at American Foodservice, which grinds 365 million pounds of hamburger a year, said it stopped testing trimmings a decade ago because of resistance from slaughterhouses. “They would not sell to us,” said Timothy P. Biela, the officer. “If I test and it’s positive, I put them in a regulatory situation. One, I have to tell the government, and two, the government will trace it back to them. So we don’t do that.
  • The pathogen is so powerful that [Smith's] illness could have started with just a few cells left on a counter. “ In a warm kitchen, E. coli cells will double every 45 minutes,” said Dr. Mansour Samadpour, a microbiologist who runs IEH Laboratories in Seattle, one of the meat industry’s largest testing firms.

The Times shows how the safe handling instructions issued by the Agriculture Dept. to cook meat thoroughly and wash up afterward are not enough to prevent the bacteria from spreading in the kitchen. E. coli can survive on a cutting board even after it is washed with soap. A towel can pick up large amounts of bacteria from the meat.

In 1987 I suffered E. Coli poisoning. It is an excruciatingly painful illness that usually resolves itself without complications. In the hospital I was given fluids and sent home. Stephanie Smith, the 22-year-old children’s dance instructor in the NYTimes story, was not so lucky. The virulent strain of E. coli known as O157:H7 attacked her nervous system and left her paralyzed.

In the early ’90s, probably after the infamous Jack in the Box outbreak that killed four kids, I took to saying, “Eat your hamburgers now. By the year 2000 they’ll be gone.” I was wrong. We still eat them. And we’re still suffering the consequences.

I still eat them, too. But I am lucky enough to buy from a local farmer who I know and trust. Just yesterday I saw the cows from which I will choose my next one. It will be killed and butchered at a local abattoir. I stopped eating meat out for both humane and health reasons.

See also: Anatomy of a burger. Video report of Stephanie’s story.