“It is not the failure of the Meat Industry in not keeping cattle feces out of hamburger that sickened the child, but it is the fault of the parent who handled and cooked the hamburger that was fed to the child.”
I have received several emails like the above over the last weeks as the Country has been ensnared once again in a nationwide recall – this time 19 million pounds of hamburger – that has sickened at least 30 in several States – mostly children under the age of 10.
At first I calmly tried to respond that the Meat Industry that makes a profit off of selling “USDA Inspected Meat” can not blame the consumer if the product actually contains a pathogen that can severely sicken or kill a child. What other product in the United States would a manufacturer expect consumers to fix themselves before they used it?
The reply to my calm response was “the consumer should know that meat may contain bacteria and they are told to cook it.” My calmness has now faded. Think about the little labels on meat that you buy in the store – the ones that tell you to cook the meat to 160 degrees – of course they also say USDA inspected too. However, the labels do not say “THE USDA INSPECTION MEANS NOTHING. THIS PRODUCT MAY CONTAIN A PATHOGENIC BACTERIA THAT CAN SEVERELY SICKEN OR KILL YOU AND/OR YOUR CHILD. HANDLE THIS PRODUCT WITH EXTREME CARE.” I wonder why the Meat Industry does not want a label like that on your pound of hamburger. It knows that the label is truthful. Do you think it might be concerned that Moms and Dads would stop buying it? The day the industry puts a similar label on hamburger is the day that I will go work for them.
The reality is that the Meat Industry can not assure the public that the meat we buy is not contaminated. So, instead of finding a way to get cattle feces out of our meat, they blame parents (and presumably all the teenagers that work at all the burger joints in America) when children get sick.
Consumers can always do better. However, study after study shows that, despite the CDC estimated 76 million people getting sick every year from food borne illnesses, the American public still has misconceptions and overconfidence in our Nation’s food supply.
According to a study by the Partnership for Food Safety Education, fewer than half of the respondents knew that fresh vegetables and fruits could contain harmful bacteria, and only 25% thought that eggs and dairy products could be contaminated. Most consumers believe that food safety hazards can be seen or smelled. Only 25% of consumers surveyed knew that cooking temperatures were critical to food safety, and even fewer knew that foods should be refrigerated promptly after cooking. Consumers do not expect that things that you can not see in your food can kill you.
Consumers are being blamed, but most lack the knowledge or tools to properly protect themselves and their children. The FDA has stated that “unlike other pathogens, E. coli O157:H7 has no margin for error. It takes only a microscopic amount to cause serious illness or even death.” Over the last few years our Government and the Meat Industry have repeatedly told the consumer to cook hamburger until there is no pink. Yet, recent university and USDA studies show meat can turn brown before it is actually “done.” Now the consumer is urged to use a thermometer to test the internal temperature of the meat. However, how do you use one, and who really has one?
Many consumers wrongly believe the Government is protecting the food supply. How many times have we heard our Government officials spout “The US food supply is the safest in the world.” Remember, however, that it was the USDA that sat on positive E. coli tests for over a week that allowed this recent ConAgra E. coli outbreak to spiral out of control.
Where is the multi-million dollar ad campaign to convince us of the dangers of hamburger, like we do for tobacco? The USDA’s FightBAC and Thermy education programs are limited, and there are no studies to suggest that they are effective. Most consumers learn about food safety from TV and family members – If your TV viewing habits and family are like mine, these are highly suspect sources of good information.
The bottom line is that you can not leave the last bacteria “Kill Step” to a parent or to a kid in a fast food joint. The industry that makes billions off of selling meat must step up and clean up their mess. They can, and someday will, if I have anything to say about it. That day will come much faster if they start working on it now, and stop blaming the victims.
William Marler is a trial lawyer with a practice dedicated to representing victims of foodborne illness.
More about the ConAgra ground beef E. coli outbreak can be found in the Case News area of this site.