Investigation documents the risk of eating ground beef in the U.S.
22-year old Stephanie Smith is a paraplegiac. She suffered severe kidney and neurological injury after eating a frozen Cargill hamburger her family purchased from Sam's Club. Tracing the E. coli contamination of the burger allows a disturbing view into the game of Russian Roulette that is involved in eating an American burger. The frozen patty Smith ate was labeled "American Chef's Selection Angus Beef Patties" but Cargill records show that it was derived from slaughtershouses in Nebraska, Texas and Uruguay, along with trimmings from a South Dakota company that processes trimmings and treats them with ammonia. Cargill tested none of these components for E.coli bacteria and does not require that its suppliers test, either.
Cargill, as with many suppliers, combines low-grade ingredients cut from areas of animals that are more likely to have been contaminated, because it allows Cargill to save 25-30 percent over the cost of selling trimmed beef. Cargill's $116.6 billion dollars in revenues for 2008 make it one of the country's largest corporations, apparently impervious even to the impact of having recalled more than 840,000 pounds of ground beef patties in October of 2007.
According to the New York Times account of Smith's illness and investigation, federal inspectors had "repeatedly found that Cargill was violating its own safety procedures in handling ground beef" in the months before Smith's tainted burger was made, however, the USDA imposed no fines or sanctions: after the outbreak that led to the massive 2007 recall, the USDA threatened to withold its seal of "USDA Approval" from Cargill---but it never did. It settled for a promise to do better.
Some experts believe that the contaminated meat in Smith's burger originated from the Greater Omaha Packing Company, where 2600 animals are slaughtered daily. The beef can readily be contaminated either in hide removal or when intestines are gutted. Current Omaha Packing employees told investigators that dozens of workers walked off the job earlier in 2009 to protest the company's failure to slow the flow of carcasses after the reassignment of trimmers resulted in undue haste and safety concerns. There is also a class action lawsuit pending, accusing Greater Omaha of refusing to pay workers for cleaning their knives and gear between shifts.
The components from Uruguay that found their way into the Cargill hamburger patty were from a meat operation where the USDA has also found sanitation problems. The components from Texas came from a company called Lone Star Beef Processors which slaughters dairy cattle that are too old to be fattened in feedlots. It sent Cargill a letter warning that "there is no guarantee for pathogen-free raw material."
The final components came from Beef Products, Inc., which buys small pieces of fat derived from the normal breakdown of beef carcasses, warms them, removes the fat with a centrifuge, and then treats the "finished product" with ammonia. It produces seven million pounds of beef each week, much of which makes its way to grocery stores, fast-food restaurants and the federal school lunch program. Federal officials found E.coli in this company's material in 2006, 2008 and 2009.
While Cargill searched incoming ingredients for stray nails and metal hooks that could damage processing equipment, it does not screen for E.coli (or particularly for the virulent form that caused Smith's illness: O157:H7). The Costco retailer is one of very few companies that does test incoming meat for E.coli, but as a result, many slaughterhouses will not sell meat to Costco (executives identified Tyson, in particular). The food safety officer at American Foodservice, which grinds 365 million pounds of hamburger each year, confirmed that it stopped testing trimmings back in the '90s because of resistance from slaughterhouses.
A lobbyist for the largest meat producers told USDA officials in 2008 that companies with aggressive screening programs "typically find E.coli in as much as 1 or 2 percent of trimmings." Thankfully, according to the NYT, the vast majority of E.coli illnesses resolve without further complications. On the other hand, between 5 and 10 percent develop into hemolytic uremic syndrome, as Ms. Smith's did, when O157:H7 bacteria penetrate the colon wall, damaging blood vessels and causing clots and seizures.
While cooking meat to 160 degrees can kill the bacteria, the pathogen is so powerful and deadly that "a few cells left on the counter" can cause an illness such as Smith suffered: she was in a coma for nine weeks before she emerged with apparently permanent paralysis. Cutting boards, for example, must be cleaned with bleach, according to authorities, as E.coli bacteria often remain on the board even after washing with soap and water. Bon appetit!
ADDENDUM: ON OCTOBER 8, 2009, COSTCO AND TYSON ANNOUNCED A NEW DEAL THAT "ALLOWS" COSTCO TO TEST IN-COMING MEAT FOR E.COLI. COSTCO CAN NOW TEST THE "TRIMMINGS" IT PURCHASES FROM TYSON BEFORE THEY ARE MIXED WITH OTHER INGREDIENTS TO CREATE GROUND BEEF. CRAIG WILSON, SAFETY DIRECTOR FOR COSTCO HAD REPORTED PREVIOUSLY THAT TYSON WOULD NOT SELL TO COSTCO IF COSTCO INSISTED ON TESTING TYSON TRIMMINGS. TYSON REFUSED TO RESPOND TO THAT ALLEGATION.
ALSO, IN RESPONSE TO THE NEW YORK TIMES REPORT, CONGRESSIONAL CRITICS NOTED THAT THE U.S.D.A. HAS AN INHERENT CONFLICT OF INTEREST, SINCE IT IS CHARGED WITH PROMOTING FOOD SAFETY AND THE AMERICAN AGRICULTURE INDUSTRY. SOME ARGUE THERE WILL NEVER BE ENOUGH EMPHASIS ON CONSUMER SAFETY WITHIN THE U.S.D.A., SO LONG AS ITS CHARTER IS BASED ON THIS CONFLICT.