So, what is the big deal? President Obama ordered a medium-well burger for himself and the VP, and ordered medium burgers for the press – in a restaurant with a spotty food safety record that does not use, or may not even have, a thermometer. Forgoing the phrase “teachable moment” for a bit, I would like to get right to the “meat” of the matter. What Obama did was foolish – in the view of many food safety experts – but it is something that many consumers do every day; they order a burger from their favorite restaurant or cook it themselves on the backyard grill.
Food safety professionals inside and outside government will tell you that medium or medium-well means nothing in the food safety world – temperature is the key. Pink or brown color is not a good indicator of “doneness.” Temperature on the inside of the burger (at several places) of 155 to 160 degrees (rules vary a bit state to state) is the only way to assure that the burger is safe. Yet less that 2% of consumers use or own a thermometer. Restaurants are required to have thermometers, but not necessarily use them. So, why do consumers – including the President – ignore the advice of experts who are trying to protect them from the bacteria and viruses lurking in their cheeseburgers that can sicken or kill them or their children?
What consumers believe, including the President apparently, is what they hear every day from Government officials and the Beef Industry – “Our Food Supply Is The Safest In the World”. Compared to China? Great! Clearly, any food safety message is missed, because of lack of honesty (hamburger really may contain animal feces that can sicken or kill you!) and lack of education (why don’t we teach kids how to cook safely in addition to teaching them to wear seatbelts and shun smoking?)
So, what is a President to do – avoid hamburgers? Well, I do (and so does my family) ever since the Jack in the Box E. coli O157:H7 Outbreak of 1993 that sickened nearly 600, caused acute kidney failure in 50 and killed four children – but that is just me.
Full disclosure, I am a trial lawyer who represents victims of foodborne illness. I have seen too much misery, and yes, death, caused by failures in food production at every stage of the food supply. If you do not think our food supply is dangerous, then just open a newspaper, turn on the radio or TV or surf the Internet. Foodborne illness outbreaks linked to all types of food (including hamburger) are nearly a daily occurrence. However, the Government and Industry keep telling us its safe and we seem to believe it.
So, what is a President to do?
First call the head of Food Safety Inspection Services (actually, a spot yet to be filled) and ask him why there is cow feces in hamburger meat in the first place. Also, while you have him on the phone, ask about Salmonella, Listeria, MRSA and all the other bugs that may have been in the hamburger you ate the other day.
Next, be honest with the American Public. With 76,000,000 foodborne illnesses cases yearly, 325, 000 hospitalizations and 5,000 deaths, our food supply might be safer than China’s – but it is not safe enough.
Third, put food safety on the “front burner” and turn up the heat. It is time that we commit to the American Public to get animal feces out of our food. How to do it:
A. Revise food regulations to criminalize manufacturers who sell food that poisons consumers. I am not suggesting the “China Method,” but it is time to impose stiff fines, and jail sentences for businesses that kill kids;
B. Give tax credits and other incentives to businesses that invest in safe food methods and technology. Remind me, how many billions have we given the banks? Perhaps it is time to invest in those who will actually invest in us;
C. Increase the surveillance of foodborne diseases. Right now, for every one person counted in an outbreak, we miss another 20 to 40. This causes delays in determining what food product is sickening our neighbors allowing hundreds of others to become sick before we figure out what product to pull;
D. Fully fund Local, State and Federal Health and Food Inspectors and give them the legislative and financial tools to get the job done.
The “teachable moment” is simply that the hamburger that the President ordered on Monday should not put him at risk for getting sick on Thursday. That is true for all of us and all the food that we eat. The “teachable moment” has passed, the real question is, “did we learn anything?’