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.

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  • GeorgeSorwell

    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.

    Yikes!

  • JSpencer

    I shoot a deer each fall, which gives me enough meat for the year. Also I have a garden in the summer. I still have to buy groceries though, as do most people. When I was a kid my folks would buy half a beef now and then from a local. How many people know the provenance of what they eat these days? People eat too much meat here, which is unsafe and environmentally unsustainable as well, but they just eat too much period. People as a rule were considerably slimmer when I was growing up, ate less, were more active, and knew where their food came from. Now all bets are off it seems. Of course we brought this on ourselves.

  • http://greendreams.wordpress.com GreenDreams

    Just FYI, those trimmings of unknown origin are not allowed in certified organic meats.

  • kritt11

    Another option is vegetarian beef crumbles- which can be used in sauces, stews and casseroles. I make my lasagna with this and it comes out great!

    The added health benefit is that the amount of dietary fat is reduced by 70%.

  • Rambie

    I've tried those crumbles in a casserole too and it came out pretty good. I bought some veggie-patties at CostCo a few weeks ago when we had a BBQ party and everyone loved them. When I went back CostCo had sold out, so I hope they get more.

    The only thing was I had to use a cast iron pan because the patties were too weak to stay formed the grates on the grill. I lost the first few patties and I'll probably use foil next time.

  • kritt11

    I usually make them in the microwave, because the ones I have tried come out
    too dried out on the grill. I put them on a toasted bun with cheese, ketchup
    and pickle chips, and it really does help the cheeseburger craving that
    never totally goes away ( I have been a pescatarian for 3.5 years)
    regards, KR

  • Rambie

    I'm still an Omnivore, but these are good on a grill with a slice of cheese. I used turkey breast as bacon and it came out great!

  • rbestlab

    JSpencer Sorry to spoil your fun but read this – before you bite into that next Bambi burger

    —————————————————————————————————————

    Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD)
    What is chronic wasting disease?
    Chronic wasting disease (CWD) is a progressive, fatal nervous system disease known to naturally infect white-tailed deer, mule deer, black-tailed deer, moose and elk.

    CWD belongs to the family of diseases known as transmissible spongiform encephalopathies (TSEs). Though it shares features with other TSEs, such as bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) in cattle and scrapie in sheep, it is a distinct disease known at this time to only affect members of the deer (cervid) family……………………………………..
    http://www.inspection.gc.ca/english/anima/heasa

    Current US NIH web pdf's say that Canadian hunters have contracted CJD (100% fatal) from slaughtered CWD infected white-tail deer

  • ordinarysparrow

    Oh My!. . .i am so glad to be vegetarian after reading this. . . .

  • TT

    why is the US importing beef?

  • roro80

    I totally love how this became a thread on the awesomeness of fake meat! I've been a veggie since the age of 14, so fake meat is one of my favorite things. Morning Star (who makes a decent “crumble”) also makes awesome sausage patties, and beyond awesome corn dogs — I hadn't had a corn dog in 10 years and was so excited! St. Ives makes a very decent baloney, and The Good Dog makes delicious hot dogs.

    For those who love cooking, I prefer TVP (Texturized Vegetable Protien) to the pre-seasoned crumbles. It has essentially no fat and no salt and no other flavoring, so you certainly need to add all that to make it taste good. I just find the pre-seasoned crumbles sometimes are seasoned incorrectly for what I'm making. For example, I make a lot of TVP tacos and fake bolognese sauce that don't work too well with the crumbles.

  • Frith_Ra

    I went Veg almost 20 years back. I've lost weight, even with a generally sedentary lifestyle (& a chocolate jones), & I've been able to avoid having to have my food recalled in most cases. (Odwalla juices being a prime counter example). It doesn't surprise me that meat packers are afraid to have their product tested, that costs money & may cause them to have to spend more profits to clean the plant up.

    The answer: Go vegetarian. The food's better & you don't need hamburgers anyway.

  • archangel

    “chocolate jones”

    I knew I liked you.

    dark bittersweet chocolate jones, here.

    dr.e

  • Frith_Ra

    Yes, the darker, the better. Sometimes I just want to grab a cocoa pod & start chewing it raw. (which may actually be better for me than the processed product.)

  • kritt11

    Frith Ra–

    Remember that huge scandal in the kosher meat packing plant last year? If you can't trust kosher meat — you certainly can't trust regular meat. Deregulation has left consumers prey to the kinds of practices that used to give people nightmares in “The Jungle”. Even where regulations exist, there are never enough inspectors to do a credible job.

  • kritt11

    roro

    That's a great hint about the Morningside corndogs. I just bought their Italian sausage- but haven't tried it yet. I want to make a big pot of sauce with it and some peppers and onions over pasta.

    The breakfast sausage isn't bad– we eat it once in a while.

  • tidbits

    Not a vegetarian myself, one of my best friends (almost 20 years) is vegan. When we have lunch together she insists on paying then dictates no meat or dairy. No matter how many times I tell her I would not eat meat or dairy in her presence, the routine never changes. She makes great vegan pizza and inundates me with PETA literature. We live in different states now. She's a great person; this thread reminded me. Thanks.

  • kritt11

    Wow, I love animals, and have 4 of them in the house, but I could never become a vegan. I tried to switch to vegan cheese and soy milk- but I can't get used to the taste of the milk. Pescatarian is a pretty easy compromise. I'm not eating meat or poultry and can still find things to order on menus.

    I admire your friend's dedication, Tidbits.