In the wake of a stark exposé on safety practices in the beef industry that appeared last week in The New York Times , consumers are taking a second look at the meat they eat.
The media backlash after the article’s publication has paved the way for another debate over food safety regulation, in particular the limited role inspections and testing play in keeping ground beef contaminated with E. coli off the market.
“Testing of product, either raw materials or finished products, is something that has limited usefulness,” said Craig Hedberg, professor of environmental health sciences at the University of Minnesota. “We can’t test every square inch of an animal’s carcass to see if there’s bacteria present … it just would be too expensive.”
The article expounds the various regulatory shortcomings of Minnesota-based Cargill and a handful of slaughterhouses that led to the hospitalization of several people in 2007 poisoned by E. coli O157:H7 , the particular strain found in meat and produce.
Many blame the lackluster or even nonexistent testing for E. coli.
Contrary to the recent media buzz, most facilities are extremely clean, said Ryan Cox, professor of meat science at the University.
“If you were to go into a modern meat facility,” he said, “it looks very similar to a surgical suite in a hospital.”
Cox explained that meat industry practices are so stringently regulated that “to infer in some way that we have an unsafe system would be certainly an error.”
A package of ground beef usually contains meat from several different slaughterhouses located all over the United States (and in one case Uruguay), making it difficult, if not impossible, to pinpoint where contaminated beef comes from.
Pete Nelson , who spent 35 years running a USDA-inspected facility, defended the multiple sourcing used by large processing plants. He cited the need for a steady supply of beef in case an individual slaughterhouse is not able to deliver on time, as well as the need for a variety of meats to ensure consistency.
“You would rather go to a store and buy ground beef that’s 90 percent lean,” he said. “You can’t do that from a single cow.”
Nelson now runs the University’s meat lab, which takes animals no longer used for study and processes and sells the meat.
Both Nelson and Cox said consumers have an important role in food safety, especially in the handling and cooking of raw meats.
“We both agree on the fact that there really wouldn’t have been much of a story to begin with, particularly with the instance [The New York Times] cited with the food sickness, if the product had been cooked to the correct internal temperature,” Cox said.
On the other hand, food safety can be a difficult thing for consumers to handle, and the idea that consumers are mishandling food is a convenient place for big meat-producing companies to lay the blame, said Bill Marler , a prominent food safety attorney.
Marler may be best known for representing consumers sickened by E. coli in the landmark Jack in the Box case. The fast food chain’s tainted meat killed four young children and sickened hundreds of others, in 1993 , and the outbreak represented the first major E. coli scare.
“Even the USDA says … consumers are not handling hamburger like it’s radioactive. They’re not handling it like it’s a bomb that might explode,” Marler said.
“It’s really convenient for companies that produce meat to blame consumers for mishandling a product that has a pathogen in it that can kill you.”
Over the past decade, E. coli contamination has significantly decreased, said Jeff Bender, director of the Center for Animal Health and Food Safety at the University. In the last couple of years, however, those numbers have gone up.
Scientists have yet to figure out why this is happening, Bender said. As far as he knows, it may just be a “statistical blip,” but at this point, he said he still can’t speculate.
In any case, industry leaders, food academics and consumers agree that E. coli contamination is a problem.
One solution may lie in the process of irradiation , similar to the pasteurization of milk, in which scientists use radiation to kill harmful bacteria in meat, Bender said.
However, he explained, the process is not widely used by the meat processors, largely because consumers don’t understand the process and fear the risks of using radiation will outweigh the benefits.
But in the meantime, especially for those who like their hamburgers medium rare, Nelson, the University’s meat lab supervisor, said, “If you’re willing to gamble, you better be willing to lose.”