I find these figues from The Economist hard to swallow.
Every year 76m Americans become ill because they have consumed contaminated food—a staggering 26,000 cases per 100,000 population. In Britain, where people consume far fewer hamburgers, generally eat out less often and buy nowhere near as many ready-meals, there are 3,400 cases of food poisoning per 100,000 population annually. France is safer still, with only 1,200 annual instances per 100,000 people.
But while the Economist article is pretty impersonal, a NY Times article brings it right back home, describing the trials of Stephanie Smith, 22, who was paralyzed after being stricken by E. coli in 2007. After reading this, I have to say it’s going to be a while before I wrap my mouth around a hamburger again.
Ground beef is usually not simply a chunk of meat run through a grinder. Instead, records and interviews show, a single portion of hamburger meat is often an amalgam of various grades of meat from different parts of cows and even from different slaughterhouses. These cuts of meat are particularly vulnerable to E. coli contamination, food experts and officials say. Despite this, there is no federal requirement for grinders to test their ingredients for the pathogen.
The frozen hamburgers that the Smiths ate, which were made by the food giant Cargill, were labeled “American Chef’s Selection Angus Beef Patties.” Yet 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.
Using a combination of sources — a practice followed by most large producers of fresh and packaged hamburger — allowed Cargill to spend about 25 percent less than it would have for cuts of whole meat.
One of the problems is that the folks who make the hamburgers don’t monitor the incoming cuts of beef for contamination. Even worse, the slaughterhouses won’t sell to anyone who actually does check their input, because this would shut them down (sic)! The article named only two producers who monitor their incoming meat: COSTCO and Bubba Burger.
Costco said it had found E. coli in foreign and domestic beef trimmings and pressured suppliers to fix the problem. But even Costco, with its huge buying power, said it had met resistance from some big slaughterhouses. “Tyson will not supply us,” Mr. Wilson said. “They don’t want us to test.”
And I hate to say it, but the French have it all over us when it comes to food safety. I recently heard an interview with a French butcher who explained that every cut of meat that he sells can be traced all the way back to the specific animal it came from.
Maybe we can learn something from the French after all.