The perfect hamburger, spoiled
By Steven Salzberg on 8/07/2012 05:52:00 AM
In 1993, a deadly outbreak of E. coli infections hit the northwestern U.S., sickening hundreds of people and killing four children. The outbreak was traced to undercooked ground beef from a hamburger chain called Jack in the Box.
Fortunately, we live in a highly educated, advanced society, where the citizenry understands that its health depends on having bacteria-free food. The unsanitary conditions that allowed E. coli to enter the food supply, including assembly-line slaughterhouse practices, were quickly halted. New government regulations assured that any factory that shipped contaminated beef would be shut down. Inexpensive, accurate DNA testing now detects almost all bacteria at a neglible cost. Food-borne outbreaks of bacterial infections have been rare ever since.
Ha ha ha ha ha! Just kidding! Of course we can't have government regulators getting in the way of efficient food manufacturing! Consumers ought to know that it's their fault if they get sick. We must cook our burgers until they're as sterile as a Martian landscape. That's simply the trade-off we must make to have such cheap food these days.
It's not that we don't check for any bacteria at all. In fact, the U.S. Department of Agriculture recently announced that it would begin testing beef for six different deadly strains of E. coli. Until now, it has only tested for the O157:H7 strain, which was behind the 1993 outbreak. I guess this is progress. However, the USDA will not be testing for salmonella bacteria or for any other nasty microbes.
The beef industry is opposed to any efforts by the government to test its products for bacteria. For many years now, it has been remarkably successful, through lobbying efforts in Congress and through lawsuits, at rendering the USDA powerless. As one example: twelve years ago the USDA tried to shut down a beef plant in Texas that failed its salmonella tests. The beef industry challenged the USDA in court and won, and the USDA still doesn't have the power to shut down a plant for salmonella contamination.
We have the technology to detect all the bacteria that keep turning up in beef and chicken. DNA testing technology has gotten much faster, cheaper, and more accurate in the 20 years since the Jack-in-the-Box outbreak, but we still don't use it on our food. The meat industry won't say why it opposes DNA tests for contamination, but no one knows how consumers might react if they knew how much bacteria was really in their meat.
The USDA does test for E. coli O157:H7. In the first half of this year, it tested 6,427 beef samples. Out of those, 470 (7%) tested positive, which is pretty startling, considering that this is just one strain out of six known to be deadly to humans, and considering that we've known about this one since 1993.
(Chicken, by the way, has similar problems, with most raw chicken (organic or not) being contaminated by salmonella or campylobacter bacteria. It helps that no one likes chicken cooked rare.)
Where does all this bacteria comes from, anyway? You may already know the answer: poo. Beef and chicken production facilities aren't very good at keeping the (ahem) waste material separated from the meat. Changing the way our beef is produced would cost more, undoubtedly. But is it unreasonable to ask a food producer to deliver safe food?
Luckily, if you cook meat long enough, it can't hurt you. It might not taste as good, but hey, we all make compromises. So broil those burgers through and through, and if they're a bit dry, well, that's what ketchup is for.