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“The only safe hamburger is one cooked to 160 degrees,” says Nancy Donley, president of the nonprofit Safe Tables Our Priority, a food-safety advocacy group. “Research has shown color is not a reliable indicator.”
Donley learned about food safety the hard way seven years ago when her 6-year-old son died of HUS from eating an E. coli contaminated hamburger.
What worries Donley is that the E. coli situation may not have improved much, despite a number of well-publicized cases, including a 1993 outbreak linked to undercooked burgers from Jack in the Box restaurants and a spate of 1996 cases linked to Odwalla brand fruit juice.
Donley says that about half the cattle that come in for slaughter have some exposure to E. coli, and that ground meat samples tested by the federal government are turning up higher amounts of bacteria than before — although this may be because of better testing.
“The slaughterhouse market is relatively unchanged since Sinclair Lewis wrote The Jungle,” says Bill Marler, a Seattle attorney who has represented victims of some of the most notorious food poisoning cases of the last decade, including the Jack in the Box and Odwalla cases. He holds this opinion despite the fact that some plants have adopted new Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point (HACCP) quality-control procedures to keep contamination down.
“The concept is great,” Marler says. “You look at those particular areas with the potential for contamination and focus on it and deal with it. In reality, it still takes a commitment by the company.” Still, he adds, “I think you have got to have oversight in addition to HACCP. You can’t let your own industry regulate itself.”
As consumers, we can’t trust that what we’re eating is safe.
Proper cooking is of key importance, but it’s not the only thing. Raw meat should be handled very carefully, all the way from the grocery story to the plate.