The daughter of a friend of mine died after eating hamburger contaminated with E. coli at a family cookout. Her death was horrendous. For two weeks, the once-bubbly two-year-old lay in hospital struggling to stay alive while toxins slowly ate away at her kidneys. Neither modern medicine nor her parents could do a thing, except watch in anguish.
That preventable death occurred more than two decades ago, yet food safety regulators and meatpackers have refused to take the simple steps that would prevent the same tragedy from recurring. In the last week alone, 48 people (and counting) have been sickened in the Northeast by E. coli in ground beef. Two have died.
Pointing out that a report released by the United States Department of Agriculture showed that nearly 1 out of every 300 samples of ground beef contains E. coli (which comes from bits of cow manure in the meat), Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) announced plans late last month to introduce the E. Coli Eradication Act. It is hardly a draconian law, requiring only that processors regularly test beef for the deadly pathogen both before and after it is ground. “We need to do a better job of catching contaminated food before it ever comes close to a kitchen table,” she said in an interview with the North Country Gazette.
The American Meat Institute (AMI), an industry trade organization, reacted with such vehemence that you could be forgiven for thinking that Sen. Gillibrand had introduced legislation requiring all Americans to become vegans. “If we could eliminate E. coli 0157:H7 in ground beef by passing a bill in Congress, we would have insisted that such legislation be enacted years ago,” said AMI president J. Patrick Boyle in a statement.
Then Boyle went on to suggest that the problem was with cooks, not members of his organization. “Food safety is the meat industry’s top priority. We are selling a raw product, however, and raw products by their nature may contain harmful bacteria. That’s why we are committed to providing consumers the information that they need to handle and cook ground beef safely.” I think he means that we’ll still be eating cow dung, but safe cow dung.
I also have to question Boyle’s assertion that passing a bill in Congress wouldn’t work. Gillibrand should consider inserting a clause in her act that would hold beef company executives criminally responsible when people die after eating their products. It might not eliminate E. coli in ground meat, but given the consequences, it would be worth a try.
In the meantime, I’ll keep avoiding packaged hamburger and buy chuck roast. Cut it into cubes, run it in the food processor for a few seconds and you have ground meat that tastes so good you’ll hardly miss the E. coli.