"Ground beef is usually not simply a chunk of meat run through a grinder. (It's) an amalgam of various grades of meat from different parts of cows and even from different slaughterhouses. 'A mix of slaughterhouse trimmings and a mash-like product derived from scraps that are ground together.' These cuts of meat are particularly vulnerable to E. coli contamination."
"Food scientists have registered increasing concern about the virulence of this pathogen since only a few stray cells can make someone sick."
"Ground beef is not a completely safe product," according to Dr. Jeffrey Bender, a food safety expert.
"A test by the New York Times found that even customary safe handling (cooking & clean-up) instructions are not enough to prevent the bacteria from spreading in the kitchen."
"The (E. coli) pathogen is so powerful that Stephanie 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."
by Michael Moss, New York Times, Oct. 4, 2009
Believe me, I had no intention of writing about contaminated meat this morning. I was all set to post either some new info on Vitamin D or Po Bronson's "Nurtureshock" or non-drug approaches to arthritis. Not happening. Even though I haven't had a burger in over a year--I think this is a story that needs to be shared.
If you love your burgers, you MUST read this morning's NYT's investigative piece about the meat processing industry's risky lack of proper inspection. It's a story of unsafe factory slaughterhouses and meat-processing plants that the U.S. Department of Agriculture is unable to safely oversee and regulate.
The industry does not do careful testing of its products, and it gets away with unsafe practices under the cover of "trade secret" laws, skillful lobbying, and the strong arm techniques used by slaughterhouses.
Here's how it works: According to two large meat grinding companies, many big slaughterhouses will sell their meat only to grinders (including grocery chains & processors) if they agree to not test their shipments for E. coli. They fear that if E. coli is discovered "it will set off a recall of all the meat they've sold to other processors."
1. Buy from Costco, which is one of the few big processors that tests trimmings for E. coli before grinding it into ground beef.
2. Buy local from a small-scale farm where the meat stays in the plant until the tests for E. coli come back. Click here to read more.
3. Avoid pre-ground beef that's made from trimmings. Ask your grocery if they make their own ground beef from whole cuts of meat. To be certain, have your butcher custom grind a whole cut of meat for your burgers.
Here's my Cliff's Notes summary of the very long NYT's article:
How Did a Burger Leave Stephanie Smith Paralyzed?
Back in October 2007, Stephanie Smith, a 22 year old children's dance instructor, eats a home-cooked grilled burger. Soon after, tolerable stomach aches and cramping begin--and she figures she has some kind of a stomach virus. This progresses to bloody diarrhea, then her kidneys shut down, followed by seizures that leave her unconscious. After nine weeks in a coma, she is unable to walk, and most likely never will.
The culprit: a frozen burger made by food giant Cargill and bought at Sam's Club.
- Meat companies have been barred from selling ground beef tainted with E. coli O157:H7 since 1994 after the Jack in the Box restaurant incident that left four children dead. So, tell me how do you ban selling contaminated beef without instituting strict testing for E. coli at processing plants?
- Tens of thousands of people are still sickened yearly by E. coli-contaminated meat--and the USDA says hamburger is the biggest culprit.
- Although Stephanie Smith's illness was an extreme reaction, the NYT's interviews with government & industry insiders, and their examination of corporate & government records "shows why eating ground beef is still a gamble."
- Neither the USDA inspection system, nor industry self-monitoring and testing can be relied upon.
- Ground beef is not usually a chunk of meat run through a grinder--it's a mixture of various grades of meat from different parts of the cow and from different slaughterhouses--from S. Dakota to Uruguay to Texas--sometimes treated with ammonia or lactic acid to kill bacteria. Although these cuts are particularly vulnerable to E. coli, there is no federal requirement for meat "grinders" to test their ingredients for E. coli.
- Large food processors, use a technique of grinding up meat scraps & fat trimmings from various slaughterhouses to make ground beef, for one main reason: it saves money--like 25%-30% over what it would cost if they just ground up a piece of whole meat from one cow! Stephanie Smith's burger cost Cargill $1 a pound--instead of $1.30 if it had used "whole meat".
- From factory feedlot to factory slaughterhouse. The cheap meat used for ground beef is cut from the part of the cow that is most likely to come into contact with feces--which of course, carries E. coli.
- Fecal contamination. Cargill bought the cheapest ingredient of its burger mix--the half fat-half meat trimmings--from a factory-sized packing plant the size of four football fields--with a tremendous potential for fecal contamination. The cows arriving from factory feedlots are often smeared with feces--and "workers slicing away the hide can inadvertently spread feces to the meat--and large clamps that hold the hide during processing sometimes slip and smear the meat with feces."
- Cleaning the meat. Although slaughterhouses wash carcasses with hot water & lactic acid the practice isn't foolproof--and then there's further E. coli risk at the gutting station--when the intestines are removed.
The other "meat cleaning technique" is to warm trimmings, remove the fat in a centrifuge, and treat the remaining product with ammonia. And we eat this stuff? An Iowa State University study claims ammonia sufficiently reduces E. coli, but note that the study was financed by a company called, Beef Products, which uses this ammonia treatment.
- Looking for feces. The slaughterhouse pace is brutal for workers, making it easy to miss carcasses with bits of remaining feces--and workers have complained that they don't always have the time to clean contaminants off their knives and gear.
- Metal detectors? In the case of Cargill, metal detectors scan the meat going into grinders--checking for stray nails and metal hooks--they don't want their grinders damaged!
- Testing for E. coli O157:H7. As for Stephanie Smith's tainted burger--Cargill wasn't screening the meat before it went into the grinders--only testing it after it was ground up. After Smith's illness Cargill disclosed that although it had found E. coli there was no way to determine where the tainted meat had come from because the meat that went into the grinder had come from many suppliers--foreign & domestic.
- After the 1994 Jack in the Box incident the USDA wanted to require some bacterial testing of ground beef--but the industry balked. The compromise: the USDA does 15,000 spot checks at thousands of meat plants & groceries--but it's not meant to be comprehensive. Many plants voluntarily do their own testing--but there's no standardization to the industry.
- Costco is one of the few producers that chooses to do testing on its meat before it goes into the grinder. It's found E. coli coming from both foreign & domestic slaughterhouses, and it pressures its suppliers to fix the problem. Interestingly, Tyson won't supply to Costco--because they don't want their meat tested!
- With the incidences of E. coli outbreaks increasing since 2007, it's clear there needs to be an industry standard. Some slaughterhouses test aggressively--and others don't. In a USDA survey of 2000 plants post-Cargill-outbreak, it turned out that half the "grinders" didn't test their finished ground beef for E. coli--and only 6% tested the incoming "whole" parts at least 4 times a year.
- In August 2008 the USDA proposed guidelines urging that optimally every production lot should be sampled & tested before leaving the supplier & again before use at the receiver. Once more, the meat industry is balking--they want companies to devise their own safety plans!
- According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) most E. coli illness resolves itself without serious complications. The youngest, the oldest, the immune-compromised are most at risk.
- 5-10% of E. coli illnesses develop into hemolytic uremic sydrome--a condition that affects the kidneys.
- In the worst cases, like Stephanie Smith's, the toxin from the E. coli "penetrates into the colon wall, damaging blood vessels and causing clots that can lead to seizures."
- In the Cargill 2007 outbreak in Minnesota, 11 illness were specifically tracked to the Cargill ground meat--four of whom developed hemolytic uremic syndrome--higher than expected. But, health officials estimate that 940 others were also sickened from the meat.
- Although the USDA recommends cooking meat until it reaches 160 degrees, using a thermometer to test the temperature, & thoroughly washing cutting boards & counters with soapy water--it may not be enough.
- The E. coli pathogen is so powerful that just a few cells left on a counter can be responsible for illness--especially because they can double every 45 minutes in a warm kitchen.
- Dr. James Marsden, a meat safety expert at Kansas State University, urges consumers to use bleach to sterilize cutting boards--and admits that this is a very difficult process.
- In a cautionary experiment, the New York Times prepared three pounds of ground beef dosed with a nonharmful strain of E. coli--that acts the same as the toxic O157:H7 strain. Even following all the safety instructions on the packaging, when tested, E. coli was still found on the cutting board that was washed with soap, and large amounts of bacteria from the meat was found on a kitchen towel .
Be an informed consumer. Understand what goes on in factory feedlots and slaughterhouses. The lack of safety, testing, and oversight is not worth the lower costs. Be sure to see the documentary, Food Inc. Click here for my summary.