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E. coli is deadly -- and preventable

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- How does the American food processing industry test for potentially deadly E. coli germs in your hamburger? They put it in your kitchen and see if anyone in your household gets sick. Or dies. It's illegal to knowingly introduce a...

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- How does the American food processing industry test for potentially deadly E. coli germs in your hamburger?

They put it in your kitchen and see if anyone in your household gets sick. Or dies.

It's illegal to knowingly introduce a pathogen into the food system. But, amazingly, there is no flat federal requirement that the plants that churn out tons of ground beef actually test their products to see if they are carrying a rare but horrible bacteria that can cause violent cramps, bloody diarrhea, kidney failure and a most horrible death. The federal government estimates that E. coli poisoning strikes 70,000 Americans each year, and kills 52.

Two such deaths, and 26 other cases of illness, are linked to an outbreak of E. coli poisoning that has been traced back to a western New York ground beef processor, Fairbank Farms of Ashville, N.Y. Such an outbreak, once state and federal officials connect the dots, usuallyis the only clue that anyone -- processor, retailer, consumer or government agency -- has that anything is wrong.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, the first New York senator to sit in that body's Agriculture Committee in 40 years, has proposed some very helpful legislation that would help to remedy such serious shortfalls in the nation's food safety regime. Passing those measures is the least that Congress could do.

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E. coli poisonings often are traced to ground beef. That's because ground beef can be processed through a series of handlers, as leavings from several slaughterhouses are gathered at processing plants like Fairbank Farms, mixed together, ground, sometimes mixed with spices or other ingredients, packaged and shipped, under an assortment of different labels, to many retailers. Sometimes the ground beef is shipped in large lots to other plants, where it is again mixed with still other products from still more supply chains, packaged again and sold even further downstream

Every point in that chain raises the possibility that the meat can be contaminated by something. The fact that any deadly E. coli survives that long process is particularly disquieting when you realize that it comes from the cow excrement that was stuck to the animals when they were slaughtered or spewed from their insides when they were eviscerated by someone working at industrial speeds with less care than should be allowed.

To paraphrase the uncontroverted conclusion reached far more graphically by Eric Schlosser in his best-seller "Fast Food Nation": There is manure in the meat.

But there doesn't have to be.

As "Fast Food Nation" also explains, the fast food chain Jack in the Box, which almost went out of business after an outbreak of E. coli in its hamburgers killed four people and hospitalized 200 in 1992, instituted a new safety plan that requires its ground beef suppliers to test their lines for E. coli every 15 minutes.

The cost to the chain was about 1 cent per pound of beef. Other fast food chains have followed that policy. But most ground beef in the supermarket has not been so inspected, because the processors don't want to bear the cost and because the federal government doesn't make them. Their other excuse -- that proper handling and cooking every morsel of meat to at least 160 degrees will kill E. coli in its tracks -- is as disgusting as it is true.

We know how to keep E. coli out of your supermarket, out of your kitchen, out of your children's intestines. It is just a matter of political will.

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