Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Considering Hamburger: NYTimes Report on Food Safety

The New York Times published an article on Sunday that told the tragic tale of a young woman from Minnesota who contracted a severe form of food-borne illness caused by E. coli traced to a hamburger her mother grilled for her. Stephanie Smith, now just 22 barely survived, and she was left paralyzed as a result of severe nerve damage. The article, Woman's Shattered Life Shows Flaws in Beef Inspection, is a frightening look at food borne illness and a similarly frightening look at potential problems associated with that quintessential American food, the hamburger.
. . . confidential grinding logs and other Cargill records show that the hamburgers were made from a mix of slaughterhouse trimmings and a mash-like product derived from scraps that were ground together at a plant in Wisconsin. The ingredients came from slaughterhouses in Nebraska, Texas and Uruguay, and from a South Dakota company that processes fatty trimmings and treats them with ammonia to kill bacteria.
Testing for E-coli is recommended by USDA, but is not required. While Cargill manufactured and sold the patties, given the variety of origins and the lack of testing, it is virtually impossible to trace back to the original source of the contamination.

This problem is described in the associated graphic, Anatomy of a Burger, an effective portrayal of the the source of the substances that went into the frozen patties that Stephanie's mother purchased. Addressing the issue of proper cooking, the Times conducted a test on kitchen procedures and produced a video, Hamburger Confidential that suggests the ease of contamination to surfaces and objects in the kitchen, even when the burger is properly cooked.

A video presentation provides an interview with Stephanie, her attorney Bill Marler, and a look at our meat inspection process. Marler provides information about another victim of the Minnesota outbreak on his blog in the post, Stephanie Smith is Just One of the Victims. The post provides a detailed and heartbreaking chronology of the medical problems and permanent disability suffered by another Minnesotan, eleven year old Ruth Hemmingson.

On Monday, USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack issued a statement in response to the New York Times article.
The story we learned about over the weekend is unacceptable and tragic. We all know we can and should do more to protect the safety of the American people and the story in this weekend's paper will continue to spur our efforts to reduce the incidence of E. coli O157:H7.
While the statement reviews some of the new initiatives begun under the Obama adminstration, Secretary Vilsack promised additional action.
USDA is also looking at ways to enhance traceback methods and will initiate a rulemaking in the near future to require all grinders, including establishments and retail stores, to keep accurate records of the sources of each lot of ground beef.

No priority is greater to me than food safety and I am firmly committed to taking the steps necessary to reduce the incidence of foodborne illness and protect the American people from preventable illnesses. We will continue to make improvements to reduce the presence of E. coli 0157:H7.

Clearly, it is in the interests of the public, the political interests of the administration, and the economic interests of the livestock and meat industries to address food safety problems quickly and effectively.

Beyond this, I am left wondering about the big picture of contamination and wondering about the virility of the new bacteria that seems to be developing. While testing, sterilization, and sanitization seem essential to address the symptoms of our problems, are there more fundamental questions to also address?

UPDATE: Cargill's response to the NY Times article and its explanation of its testing system for food safey can be found on the MarlerBlog post, Cargill Responds.


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