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Would You Like some E.coli on that Burger? Part I

October 4, 2009

A year ago, Austin introduced me to my first hamburger.  (pause for shock and awe)  Ever since I was little, my mom always encouraged a white meat diet and so beef was never an option.  Yet it was in that moment, with that burger in my hands, that I realized that a piece of meat stuck between two slices of bread with a little ketchup and cheese on top could taste soo good.

Yet in my local vs. industrial foods comparison last week, this amateur Hamburgler realized that maybe not all hamburgers are created equal.

Some are free of hormones, antibiotics, and the risk of mad cow disease and come from health-friendly, animal-friendly, and environmentally-friendly sources.  Yet others have questionable contents and come from questionable sources such as  confined animal feeding operations (CAFO).

Austin and I have had our share of industrially-produced hamburgers–they’re so cheap!  But the reasons why they’re so cheap may also be reasons why eating them can be like eating puffer fish: potentially risky.

Yesterday, the New York Times published an article reminding us that E. coli, that ever elusive food-bourne bacteria is still hanging around.  Though some strains can be harmless, others can lead to severe or even life-threatening infections.  The woman in the article, Stephanie Smith, is now paralyzed from the waist down due to eating an E.coli infected hamburger.  Who’s responsible for overlooking this safety issue?  Now that culprit is a bit harder to find than the E.coli.

In our lineup:

image source: ecoliblog.com

The Food ProcessorCargill is responsible for the production of the hamburger patties.  They only test for E.coli after the ingredients (including meat from four different slaughterhouses) are mixed together.

The Slaughterhouses Meat from Greater Omaha Packing Co, Lone Star Beef Processors, a slaughterhouse in Uruguay, and Beef Products Inc. makes up the hamburgers.  Though each slaughterhouse utilizes safety measures, the safety of the meat is not guaranteed.  Some unwritten agreements between slaughterhouses and food processors keep the latter from testing the meat shipments they receive for bacteria.

The U.S.D.A.– The Agricultural Department allows slaughterhouses to decide their own safety plans.  But when U.S.D.A. officials conducted spot checks in 2007, many were found to be failing their own safety plans.  Should there be more government regulation?  Or does responsibility lie within the companies?

The Chef– Should responsibility lie in the hands of the consumer?  Hamburgers must be cooked to 160 degrees Fahrenheit to ensure that any E.coli are killed.  Raw meat that touches cooking utensils, counter tops, or towels can also result in cross contamination.

The Verdict? Personally, I think all parties play a role in ensuring food safety.  Though we as consumers could cook our meat more thoroughly to ensure the safety of our food, I think the companies that provide us with that food should be held accountable for its safety before it ends up in our freezers.

With fall here in full swing, nothing is better on a crisp weekend afternoon than friends, hamburgers, and football.  While I wouldn’t want to give that up, I wouldn’t want to risk an E.coli infection either.  Until policies change at the government and corporate levels, there are a few things that consumers can do to ensure the safety of their food.  Meat can be purchased from trusted local farmers or cooked more thoroughly.  Using a food thermometer is an easy way to double check those burgers and make sure that they’re not only tasty, but safe to eat.

Who do you think is responsible for the safety of our food?  What do you do to make sure your food is safe?

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. Danny permalink
    October 6, 2009 6:05 pm

    Is it our fault if we weigh the flavor of that warm, bloody block of meat more than a chance of contracting a disease that makes us “leak” from everyplace imaginable? Yes. Are we ultimately responsible for poisoning ourselves? Yes.

    Who can we blame for our self-induced problems? We could simply blame corporate America, food production protocols/mandates, or blame Canada. Rather, we should be responsible for ourselves and the things we put in our mouths (this includes fat people). If you don’t want E Coli, wash your dishes, cook your food, and don’t roll around in a stock yard.

    Big food industry has taken extreme precautions to maintain super-sanitary slaughter houses in the last 30 years, they continually improve plant cleanliness and modify various butchering techniques. With regards to E Coli, ground beef is not the only culprit. Last year, Taco Bell had an E Coli outbreak due to the lettuce they purchased. The outbreak was a result of workers misfertilizing the crop. Does this mean that large produce producers have to lock down the surveillance of their processes? No. Does this mean that Tyson Meats should go much further lengths to improve their waste removal processes? No.

    The United States has to maintain a level of efficiency necessary to cheaply feed America (although, we can all agree America could eat less). If we force large businesses to tighten their grip on safety precautions, who is to say that our food will be safer? In fact, people may become very lazy as a result and not take proper food safety precautions while preparing meals — this is probably more dangerous than producers slacking, as consumers can eliminate “point source” pathogens by cooking to safe temperatures.

    I feel that our current system is “safe enough” and that we should only make small changes as they are needed (i.e not moving all of our cattle to prairies and slaughtering cattle completely by hand). Maintaining a state of safety equilibrium between Large producers (Conagra, Cargill, etc.) and consumers has already been achieved, why press the button any further? Outlying cases, such as the girl in the NY Times article do not justify manipulating the system as their condition is a result of random error in a very complicated manufacturing system.

  2. November 23, 2009 7:25 am

    Hahay : ) Greenmyguy, no i don’t want e.coli, of course “We are What Our Meat Eats” 🙂

    http://agriculturalguide.wordpress.com/2009/04/10/we-are-what-our-meat-eats/

    May want to read it.

  3. January 24, 2011 6:52 pm

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  4. September 13, 2011 2:04 am

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  5. September 14, 2011 12:33 am

    That is Awesome! Thanks.

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