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In an extraordinary 4,800-word page one story yesterday, the New York Times offered a scathing look at the nation’s ground beef production processes and the seeming inability to rid the nation’s ground beef supply of the E. coli strain that sickens tens of thousands of people each year.

The story is framed by the story of Stephanie Smith, a young Minnesota dance instructor who unwittingly ate a contaminated hamburger. At first, she “thought she had a stomach virus … Then her diarrhea turned bloody. Her kidneys shut down. Seizures knocked her unconscious. The convulsions grew so relentless that doctors had to put her in a coma for nine weeks. When she emerged, she could no longer walk. The affliction had ravaged her nervous system and left her paralyzed.” While the Times concedes that Smith’s reaction is extreme, it “shows why eating ground beef is still a gamble. Neither the system meant to make the meat safe, nor the meat itself, is what consumers have been led to believe.

“Ground beef is usually not simply a chunk of meat run through a grinder. Instead, records and interviews show, a single portion of hamburger meat is often an amalgam of various grades of meat from different parts of cows and even from different slaughterhouses. These cuts of meat are particularly vulnerable to E. coli contamination, food experts and officials say. Despite this, there is no federal requirement for grinders to test their ingredients for the pathogen.

“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.

“Using a combination of sources — a practice followed by most large producers of fresh and packaged hamburger — allowed Cargill to spend about 25 percent less than it would have for cuts of whole meat.”

The story needs to be read in full, and a link is provided below; it is almost impossible to convey the seriousness of the situation described by the Times in digest form. However, here are some excerpts from the story…each of which seems more alarming that the one before it:

• “Cargill, like most meat companies, relies on its suppliers to check for the bacteria and does its own testing only after the ingredients are ground together. The United States Department of Agriculture, which allows grinders to devise their own safety plans, has encouraged them to test ingredients first as a way of increasing the chance of finding contamination.

“Unwritten agreements between some companies appear to stand in the way of ingredient testing. Many big slaughterhouses will sell only to grinders who agree not to test their shipments for E. coli, according to officials at two large grinding companies. Slaughterhouses fear that one grinder’s discovery of E. coli will set off a recall of ingredients they sold to others.”

• “Food scientists have registered increasing concern about the virulence of this pathogen since only a few stray cells can make someone sick, and they warn that federal guidance to cook meat thoroughly and to wash up afterward is not sufficient. A test by The Times found that the safe handling instructions are not enough to prevent the bacteria from spreading in the kitchen.”

• “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. Federal records released by the department through the Freedom of Information Act blacked out details of Cargill’s grinding operation that could be learned only through copies of the documents obtained from other sources. Those documents illustrate the restrained approach to enforcement by a department whose missions include ensuring meat safety and promoting agriculture markets.”

• “The surge in outbreaks since 2007 has led to finger-pointing within the industry. Dennis R. Johnson, a lobbyist for the largest meat processors, has said that not all slaughterhouses are looking hard enough for contamination. He told USDA officials last fall that those with aggressive testing programs typically find E. coli in as much as 1 percent to 2 percent of their trimmings, yet some slaughterhouses implicated in outbreaks had failed to find any.

“At the same time, the meat processing industry has resisted taking the onus on itself. An Agriculture Department survey of more than 2,000 plants taken after the Cargill outbreak showed that half of the grinders did not test their finished ground beef for E. coli; only 6 percent said they tested incoming ingredients at least four times a year.”

• “The retail giant 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.

“Craig Wilson, Costco’s food safety director, said the company decided it could not rely on its suppliers alone … 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 meat processing industry has resisted taking the onus on itself. An Agriculture Department survey of more than 2,000 plants taken after the Cargill outbreak showed that half of the grinders did not test their finished ground beef for E. coli; only 6 percent said they tested incoming ingredients at least four times a year.

“In October 2007, the agency issued a notice recommending that processors conduct at least a few tests a year to verify the testing done by slaughterhouses. But after resistance from the industry, the department allowed suppliers to run the verification checks on their own operations … In an October 2008 letter to the department, the American Association of Meat Processors said the proposed guideline departed from USDA's strategy of allowing companies to devise their own safety programs, ‘thus returning to more of the agency’s ‘command and control’ mind-set.’

“Dr. Kenneth Petersen, an assistant administrator with the department’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, said that the department could mandate testing, but that it needed to consider the impact on companies as well as consumers. ‘I have to look at the entire industry, not just what is best for public health,’ Dr. Petersen said.”

The entire story can be read here:
KC's View:
It is almost impossible to know where to begin … except to say one cannot read this piece without having considerably less enthusiasm for hamburgers than before. Before long, Oprah Winfrey no doubt will be saying (again) that she’ll never eat another hamburger.

The problem is that there are just so many failures here. It seems clear that the beef industry has failed to live up to the public trust by doing everything and anything it can to assure that the meat it produces is safe. And the government has allowed the industry to dictate the terms by which safety is determined, thus allowing enormous holes in the system to be formed. (It is appalling that the assistant administrator isn’t making public health as his sole priority.)

There is a failure among consumers, who seem not to take this problem very seriously and don't do everything possible to eliminate the problem in their own kitchens (though, to be fair, the article makes clear that there are limits to what consumers can do, and that even sufficient cooking doesn’t solve the whole problem).

It also seems clear from the article that the beef industry and the government have decided among them that transparency is to be avoided at all costs…and if so, then they deserve whatever they get.

While reading the story, I could not help but think about irradiation – the process that, to my understanding, basically eliminates E. coli. But for a lousy name, perhaps irradiation would be used throughout the industry today, and this public health problem would be far less serious.

This situation is outrageous. In its own way, it seems as bad as the transgressions at the Peanut Corp. of America, where management consciously sent out contaminated peanut butter because to do otherwise would be to take a financial hit.

There ought to be one, and only one, priority for the industry and the government: public safety.

That’s the bottom line. And besides, without consumers who trust the people who make and sell food, there will be no bottom line. And that’s bad for business.