Hamburger Hyper

The USDA’s E. coli fire is aimed at the wrong targets.

As food scares go, it wasn’t even especially sickening. Fewer than 20 people fell ill, and not one died. Yet the Hudson Foods E. coli outbreak in Colorado was all over the nation’s headlines. The danger is not that the public has been needlessly alarmed, but rather that the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the media have focused attention on the wrong threats.

“A wake-up call for American consumers,” is how one activist described the event. The only thing is, such outbreaks are not rare events. In fact, they are relatively common, and have been happening at least a few times a year for more than a decade (the further back Centers for Disease Control and Prevention records go, the spottier they get). Only last Friday, more than 400,000 pounds of beef were recalled from stores in Virginia, and on Monday, the Associated Press reported another outbreak at an Iowa high school.

Nor was the Colorado E. coli incident of unusual proportions. There have been 37 bigger ones in the last 15 years.

So why the big national spaz over a small example of a relatively common occurrence? Well, the USDA said this was a big deal because 1) Hudson was “reworking” past days’ meat into current production and 2) Hudson’s record-keeping was so sloppy that the contamination couldn’t be traced back to the real source–one of half a dozen slaughterhouses.

But neither of those claims is the whole truth. Yes, Hudson was adding “rework” to its new production, but the USDA knew and approved of the practice. Rework is even part of the prototype state-of-the-art food-safety program that USDA-approved plants must put into effect by early next year. And yes, problems with paperwork made it difficult to trace the contaminated meat to its source. But that was not because the paperwork was shoddy. Rather, it was because the reworked, old meat was being added into new product throughout the day instead of to a single easily traceable lot at the beginning of the day. The USDA knew of that practice, too, and two USDA inspectors supervised its implementation at the plant every day.

But even if everything the USDA argued was strictly true, it didn’t need to recall 25-million pounds (75 days’ production). Industry experts and the CDC agree it takes a certain level of contamination to pose a threat. Even if a whole day’s production were contaminated and a small amount of leftover contaminated beef reworked into ensuing production, within days the E. coli (which is very slow-growing in a nonconducive environment such as chilled beef) would be so diluted that it wouldn’t pose a threat to anyone. Even leaving wide margins for safety, at most the USDA should have recalled between 8 million and 10 million pounds of beef.

Hudson, however, is not innocent in all this. The hamburgers that caused the Colorado outbreak were practically designed to prevent E. coli from cooking. When prepared as Hudson recommended, the size and the shape of the burgers was such that the outside would have had to be burned if the center was to be cooked.

But whatever the USDA and Hudson might have done to contribute to the national ruckus was topped by the media coverage. “Can This Meat Kill You?” screamed Newsweek’s ridiculous Sept. 1 cover. The text within was no less hysterical. E. Coli affects as many as 20,000 people in the United States each year, Newsweek reported. The CDC’s latest numbers place the totals at one-tenth that, though it is true that they may be “somewhat underreported.” In fact, you are a hundred times more likely to die of a newly contracted infection when you spend a night in a hospital than you are when you eat a hamburger.

B ut just because the USDA flew off the handle and the press blew the story doesn’t mean there’s no story here. E. coli outbreaks are increasing and their sources are growing more and more diverse, ranging from swimming pools to salads. But all the smoke-blowing around meat processors is obscuring the real problem.

A serious effort to curb E. coli would focus on the cattle rather than on the processing of their meat. Each of their four stomachs is a breeding ground for the virulent E. coli bacteria, which is estimated to infect between 2 percent and 4 percent of U.S. livestock.

In fact, ground beef isn’t the fastest-growing source of E. coli. Runoff from cattle pastures goes into lakes, where swimmers get infected. Cattle manure is used to fertilize fields, and the produce infects those who eat it.

Cattle, however, enjoy the powerful protection in Washington, D.C., of the nation’s ranchers, who gave millions in the last election cycle. And the ranchers are mighty resistant to any changes that could cost them money. Still, some changes could be made quite easily. Industry consultant R.A. LaBudde argues that testing and exclusion of infected cattle is one possibility–we already do it for a number of cattle-borne infections like brucellosis. Cattle could also be kept off feed for 12 or more hours before they are slaughtered. This would make their E. coli-bearing digestive system less likely to rupture, thus making contamination less likely. (The problem with this idea is that it violates the 1978 Humane Slaughter Law. Cattle need their last meal, after all.)

Technology may soon provide some solutions. In August, Mike Doyle of the University of Georgia applied for a patent on some nonvirulent strains of E. coli that wipe out the nasty version when fed to cattle.

The USDA argues, however, that what is needed is more enforcement power, and to that end, it is advancing a bill designed to expand its authority. The bill is irrelevant, though. No company has refused to recall meat that the USDA said needed recalling. And considering that Hudson, a $100-million-a-year company, was dismembered in the wake of its cooperation with the USDA, any new powers would pale compared with what the department has already.

If the USDA is interested in taking a hard look at the meat industry, maybe it should look for inspiration to the battle between the Food and Drug Administration and the tobacco companies. It is common practice to add fat back into hamburger to reach the high levels that consumers demand–just like cigarette makers add nicotine. It is a good bet that more people died last year from the extra fat they consumed in their Burger King burgers than will ever die from E. coli.