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Marler Blog Providing Commentary on Food Poisoning Outbreaks & Litigation

E. coli and the Church Picnic

I expect soon to receive the below email commenting on the recent tragic death and thirty illnesses tied E. coli contaminated hamburger served at a Minnesota church dinner:

“It is not the failure of the Meat Industry in not keeping cattle feces out of hamburger that sickened the people. It is the fault of the person who handled and cooked the hamburger that was fed at the church dinner.”

At first I will calmly try to respond to the person 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. I will then point out the fact that this deadly form of E. coli, E. coli O157:H7, is not supposed to be in hamburger in the first place – the USDA has a “zero tolerance” policy for this nasty bug. And I will argue that there is no other product in the United States manufacturers would expect consumers to “fix” before they use it.
The reply to my calm response will be something to the effect of, “the consumer should know that meat may contain bacteria and they are told to cook it.”

My calmness will fade.
In fact, after thirteen years of litigating E. coli O157:H7 contamination cases, my calmness has 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 say USDA inspected too. What the labels do not say is: “THE USDA INSPECTION MEANS NOTHING. THIS PRODUCT MAY CONTAIN A PATHOGENIC BACTERIUM THAT CAN SEVERELY SICKEN OR KILL YOU. HANDLE THIS PRODUCT WITH EXTREME CAUTION.”
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 their product?
The reality is that the Meat Industry 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 consumers (and presumably all the teenagers that work at all the burger joints in America) when people 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
— 25% thought that eggs and dairy products could be contaminated
— Most consumers believe that food safety hazards can be seen or smelled
— 25% knew that cooking temperatures were critical to food safety
— 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 from foodborne illness. 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 consumers 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 consumers are urged to use a thermometer to test the internal temperature of the meat. But do consumers know how to use one, let alone own one?
The bottom line is that you cannot leave the last bacteria “Kill Step” to a consumer 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 victims, their parents, or church groups. And the federal government, which promises to inspect meat, must deliver on that promise.