Let Them Eat Cow Manure

Photograph by Frank B. Edwards

Photograph by Frank B. Edwards


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.

Post to Twitter


  1. Joseph Bayot says:

    Looking forward to reading more! I agree completely about buying a chuck roast. Such a simple way to make your food safer and tastier.

  2. Great post and very excited about your blog. There’s so much that hasn’t been said or can never be said enough about these subject.

  3. janiejaner says:

    Glad to find this new home for important food news, Barry–and thanks to Adam H for tipping me off.

  4. janiejaner says:

    Glad to find this new home for important food news, Barry–and thanks to Adam H for tipping me off. I used to work on biz side of Gourmet and am among the legions who will sorely miss its unique POV.

  5. Sam Fromartz says:

    I’ve pretty much given up on hamburger. Have no interest in cooking it to 160F and not convinced even the stuff from small grass-fed farms are entirely free of it. Instead, I’ve found myself doing braises of short-ribs, which for the money have so much more flavor than hamburger it’s not even a contest. In fact, I prefer these braises to even steak these days and did one yesterday in a pressure cooker, creating the slow-cooked equivalent of short ribs in about 30 minutes, then slow simmered on the stove with the added veggies and potatoes.

  6. Lia Huber says:

    I read a quote of someone trying to change things at the FDA recently who said, “our job in the past has been to find the needle in the haystack before it did harm. What we’re trying to do now is to prevent the needle from getting there in the first place.” Now THAT would be a radical act.

    Sam . . . I’m with you on the braises.

  7. Chris says:

    The problem is not manure in the meat, nor cooking issues. It’s feeding cows massive amounts of cheap corn and grain which completely messes up their digestive tracts. Grain-filled cows are sick cows, so antibiotics are needed to keep them alive long enough to get them to slaughter. The diet along with the mounds of antibiotics turn the cows into walking e-coli disasters.

    If factory farming techniques were replaced with feeding cows the grasses that they were designed to eat, the ecoli problem would go away.

    That’s why it is important to bypass supermarket beef, and to buy from a small, local farm where you can see cows on pasture. The cows are healthy without antibiotic treatment, and they’re humanely raised and slaughtered.

  8. Mike Vaughn says:

    I couldn’t agree more, Chris. The food producing “industry” has created much of the problem we see today.

    However, it is the responsibility of every sector of the food supply chain to keep our food safe. That includes consumers, as well.

    While many food corporations are adopting the “culture” of food safety, consumers, in my opinion, are not keeping up with, or ignoring all together, the message of food safety. Do not misunderstand me: Producers, processors, distributors, food service, and retailers need to do MUCH better to keep pathogens from our food supply, but consumers, as part of the this equation, needs to be onboard for a complete solution to this problem.

  9. Jan whitefoot says:

    Don’t bet on your chuck roast being ok. Unless the slaughterhouse stops between each animal and cleans saws. Our local slaughterhouse AB Foods slaughters over 900 animals a day. Yakima County, WA State, where I live has over 70-90 Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations/dairies. We are called the toilet bowl of the state. In some places are water is polluted over 700 foot. (USGS) When the case of Mad Cow was found here, the Dairy Industry made it legal to bury their dead cows on site calling it mortality composting. Along with the hormones antibiotics etc. etc. this is mixed with feedlot manure and called “organic.” What temperature is livestock associated MERSA (Staph) killed? Livestock TB?, ecoli 157?, listeria ? The fact is the testing is not being done to protect the public’s health. Fewer than 1% of cows are tested for Mad Cow. Know where your meat, eggs, pork are raised. Don’t buy products from factory farms. Tell your congressmen/women to stop susidizing these millionaire factory farm owners. Tell them to support small genuine family farms.

Leave a Reply