Brow Beat

Barf Blogs

Sunday’s New York Times cover story on the hamburger patty that paralyzed a young woman in Ohio awakened even the least neurotic eaters to the hazards of ground meat. But to those who—OK, those of us who—have long been wary of E. coli and “trimmings,” the piece offered an extreme (and extremely well-reported) version of the kind of thing we terrify ourselves with all the time. Such stories are the bread-and-butter of food-safety blogs.

Food-safety blogs will not appeal to foodies: In order to appreciate them, you can’t be too much of a snob to order a hamburger well-done. Or, more precisely, to ask that your burger be cooked to 160 degrees. To verify that your burger has reached that temperature, you’ll need a thermometer—specifically, a “tip-sensitive digital thermometer” of the kind Barf Blog publisher Douglas Powell has with him at all times . (His favorite refrain is “Stick it in.”) Powell, a professor of food safety at Kansas State University, presides over a team of “barf bloggers.” The blog’s name accurately reflects the sometimes lighthearted tone: This week, for example, one post features a fan’s photo of a place in Budapest called “Fatal Restaurant.” Scroll down for the more serious mission: a proposal for food-safety stickers on takeout (finish your Pad Thai within two days) and Powell’s  rant about what he believes is an exorbitant speaking fee collected by Michael Pollan. One of Powell’s major themes is that being a locavore won’t protect you from food poisoning. Knowing that a tomato came from your neighbor’s backyard doesn’t change the fact that your neighbor’s dog likes to poop right next to the tomato plot. 

Powell frequently links to Marler Blog , which is run by Bill Marler, the country’s best-known food-borne-illness lawyer. Since representing a 10-year-old girl sickened by a Jack in the Box hamburger in the early ‘90s, Marler has gone up against Odwalla (apple juice), KFC (coleslaw), Dole (bagged spinach), and others. On his blog, Marler offers medical horror stories (which are both gruesome and extremely sad), weighs in on politics (USDA, here’s what you should do), and links to his miscellaneous tweets (watch this video before drinking raw milk). There are so many pathogens in Marler’s world that he has sub-blogs for each of them: Listeria Blog , Shigella Blog , Enterobacter Sakazakii Blog , etc.

What did Marler make of the Times piece? He posted reactions from Cargill , which made the burger, and from Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack . He told the story of an 11-year-old girl also sickened by a Cargill patty. But as far as a solution goes, he warned in a tweet: “Grinding your own hamburger is NOT any safer that buying hamburger—it is an E. coli fairy tale.”

Why do I keep returning to these blogs if there’s never a happy ending? The best way to explain it is that years ago, I collected little stories like these in a file labeled, Proof that things like this do happen. Acquiring the proof makes you feel less crazy and also, irrationally, protected. And against E. coli, perhaps magical thinking is the best defense.