Ah, for the good old days, the late 1990s, when the economy was booming and the US still commanded some respect, and when we could take the kids and grandma out for burgers without poisoning them.
It was a brief, golden era, when Americans could trust the nation’s meat supply. People were aware of the deadly E. coli O157:H7 (E. coli) outbreak, traced to Jack-in-the-Box hamburgers in 1993. But President Clinton and the USDA addressed the problem and showed genuine concern for the victims.
E. coli is a vicious bacteria, especially for children and the elderly. Those who don’t die can be saddled with permanent kidney damage. Faced with that ugly threat, the nation pulled together – the federal government, the meat industry, lawyers, parents and the media – all looking for some way to prevent our food supply from being contaminated. The USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service employed research and practices that had worked in the space program, and made them work for the nation.
The Mandatory Risk Management System, for example, identified and fixed weak links in the meat chain, from farm to fork. The presence of E. coli was deemed an adulterant under the Federal Meat Inspection Act, which quickly got the attention of ranchers, packing plants, food processors and retailers. It was no longer cost-effective to take shortcuts with food safety.
So Americans felt safe to eat hamburger again.
That was then. Today, I won’t allow my children to eat hamburger. We don’t serve it to guests. It just isn’t safe.
After several years without any major outbreaks, we’re seeing E. coli return with a vengeance. Last year, there were twenty-two outbreaks and thirty-three million pounds of beef were recalled. This year, we’ve already had eight outbreaks, leading to more recalls. One recent recall of over five million pounds has spread to seven states, sickening fifty.
At home and abroad, consumers are losing faith in our food. When Korea lifted its ban on American beef, imposed out of fear of mad cow disease, Korean citizens rioted.
What went wrong? Nobody seems to know for sure, but it looks like a combination of things, a “perfect storm” of interrelated factors, including:
Everyone in the loop, from ranchers to retailers, got complacent. The benefits of cutting corners outweighed the risks of sickening customers.
High oil prices and new ethanol plants have the unintended consequence of producing tons of distiller’s grains, which are fed to cattle in lieu of more costly corn. Research by Kansas State University suggests those grains in cow’s guts breed the nasty version of E. coli.
The ICE crackdown on illegal immigrants in meat plants prompted the hiring of inexperienced, but legal, US labor that are more prone to mistakes.
The E. coli bug itself may be adapting, becoming more resistant to detection and intervention, and, instead of adapting our science, we sat by.
Most alarming is the fact that, unlike the late 1990s, the nation is not pulling together as we did after the Jack-in-the-Box catastrophe. Given the back-to-back outbreaks of E. coli and other foodborne illness, why aren’t Barack Obama and John McCain being asked about their policies for ensuring the safety of the food supply? As the Korean riots tell us, the food supply is increasingly global, involving imports of tainted pet food from China, and exports of U.S. meats around the world. This is an issue of economics as well as health.
The presidential candidates may be reluctant to antagonize the food industry, but they are at greater risk if they allow the industry to market poisoned food. The candidate who takes on this issue must have the courage to say that our families, especially our children and elderly, as well as our economy, have a right to a safe burger.