Beef Recall Isn't the Worst News for Burger Lovers
Cargill Meat, a Pennsylvania-based manufacturing firm, is recalling 8,500 pounds of ground beef sold through BJ's Wholesale Club locations across the eastern United States. Three people have already fallen ill with E. coli, and health authorities are warning that much of the contaminated meat is still sitting in home freezers.
Of course, this is only the latest round in the decades-long debate over ground beef safety. From Oprah Winfrey's 1996 admonition on disease-laden hamburgers to the more recent -- and jarring -- depiction of the meat production mill in 2008's "Food Inc.," Americans have been given lots of reasons to talk about meaty concerns.
But at the same time, that hasn't stopped them from chomping down on, and shelling out for, various cuts of bovine. The U.S. beef and cattle industry has seen steady increases in profit and sales over the last decade, dipping only slightly in 2009.
Whether last year's ebb signals a more lasting shift remains to be seen, but it does present one more obstacle for meat producers who need to keep consumers believing that their products are safe to eat.
The Bad News on Ground Beef
Hamburger is the No. 1 culprit for E. coli infection in people and has spurred dozens of recalls in the last five years. Just what is it that makes ground beef such a breeding ground for the food-borne contagion?
Mostly it comes down to money. Despite reassuring labels like "sirloin" or "top choice," ground beef patties are usually an amalgamation of cheap, leftover cuts of meat -- from several different cows. Some meat producers, including Cargill, often ship scraps from various facilities and suppliers to a central grinding location where patties are produced, according to an in-depth 2009 report from The New York Times. When ground beef is produced in such a manner, there's more opportunity for infection, usually from feces on facility floors or within the intestines of cows being sliced and diced.
Many of the regulations governing the industry are opaque at best, and food safety experts contacted by AOL News are emphatic that existing checkpoints -- both within facilities and federal inspection agencies -- need to be revisited.
What About Food Safety Testing?
In short, it's a bloated, complex process that federal agencies, in this case the USDA, have been trying to clamp down on for years.
But in the case of ground beef, there's one major hole that's yet to be plugged: the midpoint between meat arriving at a grinding facility and being combined into final retail product. Right now, suppliers are mandated to test for E. coli prior to shipment, and companies like Cargill need to check again before they package ready-to-sell products.
That leaves a wide swath of untested territory -- and makes it hard to trace E. coli back to the precise source of contamination when an outbreak does occur.
Of course, USDA agents conduct their own inspections, several thousand a year. But with millions of pounds of ground beef produced for consumers, at thousands of facilities sourcing meat from thousands more, the agency can hardly safeguard every last patty.
Will Eating Ground Beef Ever Seem Safer?
That's largely up to the companies behind the products. Despite guidelines on handling and cooking of ground beef -- wash hands and utensils, cook to 160 degrees and don't reuse prep plates for dining -- even the best efforts in home kitchens can't always kill off particularly virulent E. coli strains.
That said, industry leaders and USDA officials say they're taking steps to make ground beef safer to eat.
Some suppliers have announced more rigid supervision of plant floors and more frequent testing, as well as improvements to employee training in an effort to minimize, as much as possible, inevitable human errors that can quickly lead to widespread contamination.
Retail outlets, including Walmart and Costco, have also recently instituted their own regulations that require more scrupulous standards for the ground beef they'll agree to sell.
And earlier this year, the USDA instituted tougher rules for ground beef sold to school lunch programs.
"... I'd make the case that the school lunch standards will now be above some of our major retail grocery chains. Not all, but some," Dave Theno, a leading food safety consultant, told USA Today. "They'll be up there with the best."
But is the best good enough? Ground chuck served to American students will be tested with rigor that's on par with the beef provided to fast food and retail outlets -- in other words, the meat being recalled by Cargill this week.
"If the secretary thinks the current specs for the [National School Lunch Program] do not provide adequate protection, then why is he not worrying about you and me and my grandkids who are not old enough to go to school yet, but eat ground beef?" Richard Raymond, former undersecretary for food safety at the USDA, told Food Safety News. "If we must do better, then make it for all ground beef."
At a commercial level, their production necessitates dozens of steps, several facilities and a myriad of human handling and machine intervention. When even the smallest slip can contaminate thousands of individual products, could the days of ground beef soon be behind us?
Unlikely. As lobby groups are quick to note, E. coli levels at federally tested facilities have actually dropped off in recent years, and recalls are still the exception to the rule for ground beef sales. Much of the beef Americans eat isn't going to make us sick.
And small-scale alternatives to commercial ground beef are making a play for our appetites, pointing out that not all beef is created equal.
"We use only whole muscle cuts, which undergo no processing at the plant from farm-raised steer," restaurateur Michael Landrum told Washington City Paper of the distinctions between his operation and centralized packing pants. "Not only do we grind in-house, we grind in small batches with complete washing and sterilization of the equipment between batches to eliminate risk."
Finally, it's worth noting that while your beef patty can make you sick, it's also far from the only barbecue fare -- from lettuce to onions to mayo -- that's been linked to E. coli infections.
Recall Alert: USDA Announces 8,500-Pound Beef Recall
What Is E. Coli?
What Are the Symptoms of E. Coli?
How to Treat an E. Coli Infection