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.

  • Marymary

    Well said, indeed! Bravo to Mr. Marsden!

  • Chuck Jolley

    I’ve been wrestling with this issue for a long time. While I generally agree that blaming the consumer for an outbreak of a food borne illness is a fool’s pursuit, I also know that there is no such thing as an idiot proof product. No matter how hard you try to create one, there will always be some creative idiot out there who consciously or inadvertently goes beyond the pale. Might be why the packaging for the sunshade I just bought to block the entire windshield of my car thus keeping inside temps from reaching blazing hot contains a warning to not attempt to drive the car while my vision is obscured by the shade.
    While discussing your position on the subject of consumers, a scientist friend pointed out the problems of competitive microflora – a balance of bacteria on a food surface is a good thing, he said. Create an absolutely clean surface and the introduction of even a tiny amount of bacteria in the home can result in an explosion of said bacteria because no other microflora are there to keep it in check.
    Anyway, I was wondering what your thoughts were on the subject of consumer responsibility. I’m working on an editorial on the subject so I would like to quote you.

  • Paul Nunes

    One of the supermarkets in Upstate NY now lables its hamburger with a warning that if it is not cooked properly, its consumption could cause serious injury or death. One wonders how anyone could place a warning like that on a product and still call it food. Thanks again, Bill.

  • Chuck – there is a big difference between someone driving with a sunshade in place, sticking their hand under a moving lawnmower and purchasing meat, handling it and cooking it. I think the meat industry needs to be honest with consumers if they want a defense that they are and “idiot” and it is their fault that the hamburger they purchased and cooked killed their child. Call me 1-206-346-1890.

  • Chuck Jolley

    Purchased it, took reasonable care and still lost a child? The meat supplier should be dealt with in the severest of terms unless it can be shown that the contaminant was introduced down stream.
    Purchased it, took absolutely no care of the product – maybe leaving it in the car for several hours in the hot sun – then serving it barely cooked or subjecting it to cross contamination?
    I’ll call.

  • Marymary

    Mr. Jolley: I believe that the article quoted above makes it pretty clear that even with taking reasonable care, it is still possible for someone to become sick and die from E coli O157:H7. Even with careful handling, cross contamination can occur very easily. One does not have to be negligent or especially careless for that to happen. Hamburgers and other thin foods are notoriously difficult to take temperatures on, especially with the thermometers that are commonly available to home cooks. Hamburger can appear to be cooked, when in fact it is still not at a safe temperature to consume. A consumer does not have to leave hamburger in the hot sun for hours and barely cook it in order for there to be a serious or fatal illness from E coli O157:H7. In other words, you don’t have to do anything extraordinarily stupid–such as driving your car with the sun shade still blocking the windshield–to become sick or to die from eating hamburger.
    Mr. Marsden’s article is remarkable in that it appears in a magazine for the meat industry, but is written from the perspective of a food safety advocate.

  • Deb

    My dear friend noticed blood in his urine five days ago. He saw his doctor Mon. afternoon, had a blood test, and a cat scan on Tuesday. Tuesday night he thought he was dying…it felt like his systems were shutting down. Somehow, he made it to work late morning on Wed. I work for him, and around 2:30 p., I said, “I’m marching over to CVS for a thermometer.” He was 100.7. Time to go! Got him home and promptly called his doctor. By the time the doc called back, Lou’s temp was 102.4. YIKES! Turns out, Lou had an e-Coli infection. From what freaking source did he contract that? He’s on horse pill antibiotics, and just today his fever broke. When I got him home Wed., I cleaned the heck out of all his produce from the farmers’ market. I mean washed and rinsed. God only knows how he got hit…could’ve been anything. Consequently, I can’t stop reading about this! You can cook your food properly and wash your produce…but what about ingesting produce that was infected via contaminated soil? The bacteria resides within the plant, hence, no can wash! What’s a person to do?
    Loved this article. Maybe I’m gonna go on some e-Coli campaign awareness deal now.
    Forgot to mention: because of this infection, Lou had to cancel his surgery for TODAY. We were counting the hours! He has spinal stenosis, and he suffers terribly. But they wouldn’t touch him with this ailment. FYI.

  • Kat

    Be smart and become a vegetarian and then you don’t even have to worry about dying from eating a hamburger!

  • Krauss

    Unfortunately being Vegetarian is not the solution, since E.Coli can be in the soil too!