I have always been a bit amazed at the meat industry and the USDA. In the nearly 17 years of litigating E. coli O157:H7 cases – mostly on behalf of children – I am tired (and a bit disgusted) by the constant din of blaming the consumer. Sometimes the industry goes so far as to sue the parent of an injured child. One company went so far a few years ago as to sue the church that it had supplied with E. coli-tainted meat. So, several years ago I penned this Op-ed:
"It is not the failure of the Meat Industry in not keeping cattle feces out of hamburger that sickened the child, but it is the fault of the parent who handled and cooked the hamburger that was fed to the child." This is a typical response to a sickened child by the meat industry and their lawyers. At first I calmly tried 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?
The reply to my calm response was "the consumer should know that meat may contain bacteria and they are told to cook it." My calmness has now 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 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 is 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 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 it was the USDA that sat on positive E. coli tests for over a week that allowed this recent Con Agra E. coli outbreak to spiral out of control.
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. 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 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 the victims.
So yesterday, I almost spilled my hot coffee on my lap when I read James Marsden’s Op-ed in “Meating Place” – “Why "just cook it" won’t cut it:”
For almost 20 years, I have heard people from the meat industry say, “if consumers would only cook their burgers, the E. coli problem would go away”. Here are 10 reasons why the “just cook it” approach will not work:
1. E. coli O157:H7 is a unique pathogen. The levels of this organism necessary to cause infection are very low.
2. The severity of the disease E. coli O157:H7 can cause, especially in children is devastating.
3. In many cases, parents order hamburgers for their children and rely on restaurants to cook them properly. In restaurants, parents really have no control over whether the hamburgers they order are sufficiently cooked to eliminate possible contamination from E. coli O157:H7.
4. If consumers unknowingly bring this pathogen into their kitchens, it is almost impossible to avoid cross contamination. Even the smallest amount of contamination on a food that is not cooked can cause illness. Many of the reported cases of E. coli O157:H7 have involved ground beef that was clearly cooked at times and temperatures sufficient to inactivate E. coli O157:H7. Some other vector, i.e. cross contamination was probably involved.
5. Even if consumers attempt to use thermometers to measure cooking temperature, it is difficult to properly measure the internal temperature of hamburger patties. They would have to use an accurate thermometer and place the probe exactly into the center of the patty. In addition, the inactivation of E. coli O157:H7 is dependent on cooking time and temperature. For example, if they cook to 155 degrees F, they should hold that temperature for 16 seconds. It is not realistic to expect that consumers, many of which are children will scientifically measure the internal temperature of hamburgers.
6. The way ground beef is packaged, it is virtually impossible to remove it from packages or chubs and make patties without spreading contamination if it is present.
7. Sometimes ground beef appears to be cooked when it really isn’t. There is a phenomenon called “premature browning” that can make ground beef appear to be fully cooked when in fact it is undercooked.
8. E. coli O157:H7 may be present in beef products other than ground beef. For example, in non-intact beef products, including tenderized steaks that are not always cooked to temperatures required for inactivation.
9. There have been many cases and outbreaks of E. coli O157:H7 associated with foods that are not cooked (i.e. fresh cut produce).
10. As Senator Patrick Leahy said after the 1993 Jack-in-the-Box outbreak – “The death penalty is too strong a punishment for undercooking a hamburger”. He was right –consumers will make mistakes. There needs to be a margin of safety so that undercooking does not result in disease or death.
For these and many other reasons, the problem of E. coli O157:H7 in ground beef and other food products must be solved. Of course proper cooking is important. However, telling consumers to “just cook it” is not the answer.
Mr. Marsden, well done.