Let me first say that the meat industry had been doing something right. E. coli illnesses and outbreaks were down, and down substantially, from 2003 to a few weeks ago. From Jack in the Box outbreak of 1993 through the Summer of the ConAgra outbreak of in 2002, most of the work we did at Marler Clark consisted of E. coli cases tied to the consumption of contaminated hamburger. In 2002, nineteen million pounds of meat was recalled and 40 people were sickened – one died. In the last two months, nearly 40 people have been sickened in a dozen or more states, some severely, and nearly six million pounds of meat has been recalled. I do not yet know the answer to this new and ominous trend, but I expect a few lawsuits will shake out an answer or two. Those concerning issues aside, I expect to get the following email (I always do when outbreaks happen) from someone upset that I had the audacity to sue a poor supplier of meat contaminated with E. coli O157:H7 (a.k.a “cattle feces”):
"It is not the failure of the Meat Industry in not keeping cattle feces out of hamburger that sickened the child, it is the fault of the parent who handled and cooked the hamburger that was fed to the child."
At first I will calmly try 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 for “gawds” sake? The reply to my calm response will be:
"The consumer should know that meat may contain bacteria and they are told to cook it."
My calmness will now fade. Think about the little labels on meat that you buy in the store – the ones that tell you to cook the meat to “thoroughly” – 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 would be 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 seems to be back at the point where it cannot 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 cannot 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, "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 just in the last year we have had E. coli outbreaks in spinach and lettuce, Salmonella outbreaks in tomatoes and peanut butter, poisoned animal feed, and now E. coli in meat is back on the front page.
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 – I’ve never heard Simon on American Idol talk about this topic with Paula.
The bottom line is that you cannot 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 figure out why outbreaks and illnesses are happening again, and clean up their mess. They can, and someday will, if I have anything to say about it – again. That day will come much faster if they start working on it now, and stop blaming the victims.