Of course, a “single hamburger” can include meat from hundreds of animals. Hamburger meat is often composed 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, but there is no federal requirement for grinders to test their ingredients for the pathogen.The particular strain of E. coli that infected Smith, known as E. coli O157:H7, is virulent, deadly, persistent and endemic in industrial beef. This year alone almost half a million pounds of E. coli infected ground beef have been recalled nationwide -- and that doesn’t include 800,000 pounds of Cargill beef recalled for contamination with antibiotic-resistant salmonella.
If you are still on the fence, wondering if you should make the switch to organic, grass-fed beef from a local farm -- instead of the mass-produced variety you can get at your local supermarket -- this New York Times article may finally convince you of the wisdom of making that choice.
You may remember the E. coli outbreak in 1994 at Jack in the Box restaurants, during which four children died? After that outbreak, federal official banned meat companies and grocers from selling ground beef tainted with an especially virulent strain of E. coli known as O157:H7.
But the strain is still showing up in ground beef. So far in 2009, almost half a million pounds of E.coli-infected ground beef have been recalled across the United States. This summer alone beef was recalled from close to 3,000 grocery stores in 41 states.
This may sound excessive, but when you delve deeper into the world of the commercial meat industry, it becomes clear that eating much of it is like playing a game of Russian Roulette with your health.
Ground beef, for instance, is typically an amalgam of meat from different cows, from different slaughterhouses. So one burger could have come from hundreds of animals and different parts of the world.
Despite this, there is no federal requirement for meat grinders to test their ingredients for E.coli prior to selling them. And most retailers do not test either.
In fact, American Foodservice, which grinds 365 million pounds of hamburger a year, had to stop testing trimmings 10 years ago because slaughterhouses did not want to sell to them!
One retailer that does test their trimmings for E. coli before grinding is Costco, and according to The New York Times, Tyson will not supply them because they don’t want their product tested.
Who is Looking Out for the Safety of Your Meat Supply?
In August 2008, the USDA issued a guideline urging meat processors to test their ingredients before grinding. But the guideline is only optional and has been met with criticism from the meat industry.
As the New York Times reported, Dr. Kenneth Petersen, an assistant administrator with the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, said they could mandate testing, but they had to first consider its impact on the companies, and not just you, the consumer. Dr. Petersen told The New York Times:
“I have to look at the entire industry, not just what is best for public health.”
So that gives you an idea of how safe your food supply truly is.
Often, there is no testing whatsoever going on to determine whether disease-causing organisms have contaminated meat.
On survey mentioned in the article, conducted by the Agriculture Department, found that out of 2,000 plants, half did not test their finished ground beef for E.coli, and only 6 percent tested incoming ingredients at least four times a year.
If you are not yet familiar with the conventional practices that go on in factory farm beef warehouses, as a matter of course, then listen up. These are places where animals are raised in filthy overcrowded conditions, and are pumped full of hormones, antibiotics and other chemicals while being fed animal byproducts and pesticide-laced grains.
For an insider look at this flawed system, read Michael Pollan’s expose from 2002; it remains one of the best overviews of what is wrong with the way beef is raised in the United States.
Is There a Safer Way to Get Your Meat?
Yes, there is. Your best bet is always to purchase your beef directly from a trusted rancher whose farming practices you’re familiar with. Supporting local farmers and ranchers can go a long way toward improving the entire food system, and more importantly, your personal health.
Buying your beef directly from the farm is an even better option than getting it from upscale, natural health markets like Whole Foods, as even these stores have had meat recalls in recent months.
Next, you will want to find and purchase grass-fed and finished beef, ideally. Grass-finished beef has a minimal risk of contamination compared to grain-fed beef due to the difference instomach pH in the two diets.
Grain diets create a much higher level of acidity in the animal’s stomach, which the E.coli bacteria need to survive. And grass-finished animals live in clean grass pastures where higher levels of sanitation greatly reduce the risk as well.
While I realize that not everyone has access to small farmers, food from local sources is increasing in popularity and is becoming much easier to come by. For an excellent list of sustainable agricultural groups in your area, please see Promoting Sustainable Agriculture -- this page is filled with resources for high-quality produce and meats in your area.
Also, there are a number of grass-fed beef ranchers in the United States that offer safe, high-quality meats.