Beef industry gets a closer look as story of paralyzed woman hits the press

Food safety expert Dr. Jeffrey Bender says mildly, "ground beef is not a completely safe product." The understatement is not lost on The New York Times, whose hugely popular, endlessly retweeted and emailed article on ground beef safety Sunday points out the "restrained" enforcement of safety procedures by the USDA.

The article tells the story of children's dance instructor Stephanie Smith, who was paralyzed after eating tainted beef at a Sunday dinner with her family in September 2007. Smith, 22, was taken to the hospital five days after the family dinner, "in excruciating pain" that a doctor described as worse than childbirth. (Smith wouldn't know; she hadn't yet started a family of her own.)
Smith was having so many seizures that doctors had to put her in a coma and fly her to the Mayo Clinic, where her mother worried she wouldn't live out the year. Scientists ended up tying 11 cases in Minnesota to hamburgers manufactured by Cargill and marketed as American Chef's Selection Angus Beef Patties. Four of the 11 sickened developed hemolytic uremic syndrome, a condition which can affect kidney function. In the worst cases, the colon wall is penetrated, impacting blood vessels and causing clots that can lead to seizures. This is what happened to Smith, and her coma lasted nine weeks. When she woke up, she couldn't walk. Her doctors say she'll probably never walk again.

After the E. coli outbreak that sickened Smith, the USDA did spot checks at 224 plants, only to discover that nearly a quarter of them had "serious safety problems" -- they weren't even following the safety plans the plants themselves devised. The USDA allows this, as well as allowing grinders to decide whether they want to test for harmful bacteria before or after grinding beef; beef suppliers prefer having the meat tested after it's ground and combined with other companies' beef, since it keeps their exposure to recalls low.

The reaction of consumers reading the article has not been mild. Among my friends and social media contacts, those who read the long and sordid tale of the lax food safety bureaucracy and the tangled weave of questionable meat that goes into our hamburgers swore off the stuff for good. Those of us who've long chosen only meat from very small, sustainably-managed ranchers are wiping our brows in relief.

Not only is this the old story of enormous slaughterhouses where overworked, underpaid employees are the only defense against cross-contamination of the meat by feces, and the ingredients are so cheap that quality cannot possibly be expected; but there are new little shockers throughout the story. Ammonia masks the presence of E. coli, so is often used to treat cow trimmings from the outside of the animal, those more likely to be contaminated. Bread crumbs and spices are added to patties -- even though the ingredients list only "beef." "Using metal detectors, [Cargill] workers snagged stray nails and metal hooks that could damage the grinders, then warned suppliers to make sure it did not happen again," Michael Moss, the Times reporter, writes. (Oh good! They are protecting their grinders! Consumers will be so happy.)

Costco, The New York Times says, is a bright spot in bacterial testing; the retailer, which grinds its own meat, tests all its suppliers' offerings upon delivery. Because of this practice, feedlot giant Tyson won't supply them with beef parts. The USDA, ever the nagging grandma, never the dictatorial dad, finally released a "draft guideline" in August 2008 in which the word "should" appears far more often than words such as "must." Helpfully, it says, "Optimally, every production lot should be sampled and tested before leaving the supplier and again before use at the receiver."

The USDA has responded by reminding consumers to use "safe handling" procedures when cooking hamburger, and yes, not following these rules could have contributed to Smith's paralysis; but even scientists find it difficult to avoid contamination with such a virulent strain of E. coli as the one from 2007. Cooking hamburgers to 160 degrees and washing counters with bleach wouldn't save, for instance, a few cells that dripped onto the side of the sink or the corner of an apron. And those few cells are enough to make you sick.

At least three different slaughterhouses and a separate beef processor supplied the meat that went into Smith's family's hamburgers, and despite many investigations neither the USDA nor Cargill has ever determined which supplier was responsible for the contamination. In my opinion and that of a vast number of consumers who've read this article, it's obvious that sickness is not the result of bad home cooks who can't handle their meat; it's the necessary and evil result of a factory meat system that is ill-regulated and designed in a way that breeds disease.

It's complicated to explain why this is. Looking at a photo of a feedlot, where cows are kept in extremely close quarters for the few months' fattening before slaughter, fed antibiotics and stomping in one another's excrement until they're eventually, messily, killed, skinned and chopped up for delivery to one of hundreds of independent grinders may explain a bit of it. More important is the realization that washing your hands and using a meat thermometer won't fix this: only a wholesale redesign of our meat industry will.

Stephanie Smith's mother, home cooks across America: this is not your fault. You're the ones paying, though. And for that, I, for one, am very sorry.

Click here for the top 10 riskiest food items regulated by the FDA.
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