How safe is that burger? November 2002

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November 2002
Consumer Reports
According to this story, Consumer Reports tested ground beef from across the
U.S. for bacteria, spoilage, and fat content. Although most samples were OK,
there are gaps in the safety net that could leave you vulnerable.
Americans consume approximately 30 pounds of ground beef per person per
year. Yet they're forever telling pollsters they plan to cut back on it '
any day now.
Ground beef's saturated fat can contribute to heart disease, and the
bacteria it sometimes harbors can sicken or kill someone who eats beef that
is not cooked thoroughly. In July 2002, the presence of the bacterium
Escherichia coli (E. coli) O157:H7 in ground beef packed by ConAgra Foods
prompted the second-largest meat recall in U.S. history. Thirty-eight people
in 12 states became ill; six of the victims developed life-threatening
complications; one died.
Ground beef is harder to keep safe than steaks or roasts because any
contamination is mixed into the meat rather than staying on the surface,
where it's more easily killed
by cooking.
The story says that there is also concern about the use of antibiotics and
hormones to promote growth in cattle; concern, too, about pollution from
feedlots, and about the possibility that mad-cow disease could emigrate from
Europe or Japan to the U.S.

The story says that Consumer Reports bought 198 samples of raw ground beef

from supermarkets in 9 states and tested them for fecal bacteria, spoilage,
and fat content. We studied how beef is produced to see where contaminants
can creep in (see From the ranch to your kitchen). We examined other issues
related to beef, such as the environmental effects of raising cattle. And we
compared the taste of steaks from cattle raised on grass with that of steaks
from cattle raised on standard feed, mostly corn (see Does grass-fed beef
taste better?).
Highlights of the findings:
Although most samples of ground beef were reasonably clean and fresh, 1
percent had
substantial levels of fecal bacteria, and about 4 percent were on the brink
of spoilage.
Gaps in the food safety net put consumers at unacceptably high risk from E.
coli O157:H7.
The ground beef Consumer Reports bought in an increasingly available form
called "case ready" (packaged in the plant) tended to be slightly fresher
than beef packaged the usual way, in the supermarket.
Grass-fed beef is sometimes advertised as especially tasty, but in Consumer
Reports' small test, steaks described as grass-fed didn't taste much
different from regular steaks.
Five veggie burgers tasted very good, and two even did a decent beef
Government actions have significantly reduced the likelihood that mad-cow
disease will
break out in the U.S., but more is needed to correct lax enforcement and a
critical loophole in the law.
Is beef safe? On paper at least, several safety nets keep bad beef from
reaching consumers. Inspectors from the U.S. Department of Agriculture

(USDA) work full-time in beef slaughterhouses, inspecting cattle and

carcasses for visible signs of illness or contamination. To deal with
invisible threats, USDA inspectors regularly conduct random tests for E.
coli O157:H7 and Salmonella bacteria on samples of beef.
Since 1998, the federal government has required all beef-processing plants
to create a
food-safety plan called HACCP (pronounced HASS-up). The initials stand for
Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points, and the plan must spell out
where contamination might occur, then build in processes and equipment to
prevent it. In many plants, especially the largest, the HACCP plan includes
in-house bacterial tests that supplement those the USDA conducts.
Do these procedures ensure clean, fresh beef? The industry says yes, and the
numbers, for Salmonella at least, lend some support. While 6.4 percent of
ground-beef samples tested by the USDA harbored Salmonella in 1998, only 2.8
percent did in 2001. James Hodges, president of the AMI Foundation, the
research subsidiary of the American Meat Institute, a national meat-packers'
trade organization, was quoted as saying, "Our slaughter facilities are
approaching a better-than-hospital sanitation standard."
ConAgra's web site describes a "multiple hurdle food safety intervention
system" that includes steam-vacuuming, washing, and acid-rinsing carcasses.
The company says these measures eliminate 99.99999 percent of
disease-causing bacteria.
Clearly, the story says, they didn't kill enough E. coli to keep ConAgra out
of the news last summer. In our tests, two of 198 samples of ground beef had

high levels of E. coli, fecal bacteria that live in the intestinal tract of

all warm-blooded animals and can contaminate beef during slaughter. It's
important to note that we tested for the presence of generic E. coli, not
specifically the rare but potentially deadly O157:H7, and we can't say which
types of E. coli were in our samples.
Though unappealing, a few fecal bacteria in your burger won't necessarily
hurt you; most varieties are harmless. But high levels of even the harmless
E. coli may indicate an increased risk of pathogens that cause food
And it doesn't take much of the harmful type to have an effect: Those who
are susceptible can get sick from ingesting as few as 10 E. coli O157:H7
bacteria. The most common symptom is severe, bloody diarrhea, but some
people--especially children, the elderly, and those with compromised immune
systems--are vulnerable to a life-threatening complication known as
hemolytic-uremic syndrome. According to the Centers for Disease Control and
Prevention (CDC), O157:H7 kills an estimated 60 people nationwide every year
and sickens 73,000.
Caroline Smith DeWaal, director of food safety for the Center for Science in
the Public
Interest, a consumer-advocacy group, was quoted as saying, "E. coli O157:H7
is among the most frightening of the foodborne pathogens because once you're
sick and the toxin is released in your system, it's essentially untreatable
with antibiotics.""
The story explains that USDA has tested ground beef for E. coli O157:H7
since 1994. Most years, it tests 5,000 to 7,000 samples from plants and

stores where meat is ground. In the first year of testing, not a single

sample tested positive. In 2001, slightly fewer than 1 percent of samples
did. The story says that given that about 28 percent of cattle arrive at
slaughterhouses with E. coli O157:H7 stuck to their hides or hooves, a
system that eventually produces a positive rate of less than 1 percent
sounds impressive.
Even more reassuring are statements by government and industry that once a
sample of beef is found to be contaminated, all ground beef from that day's
production is quarantined or recalled from the market. However, the USDA
lacks the authority to mandate recalls, which are voluntary and conducted by
manufacturers. And in practice, the recall process has not always worked
well. During the recent E. coli O157:H7 outbreak, people were falling ill
for at least two weeks before ConAgra's Greeley, Colo., facility issued the
first recall. It waited another 19 days before issuing an expanded recall of
19 million pounds of ground beef produced over nearly
three months' time. Very little of the "recalled" beef came back because so
much time had elapsed between production and recall.
The story goes on to ask, could beef harbor mad-cow disease? There has never
been a confirmed case of this fatal brain-wasting disease (official name:
bovine spongiform encephalopathy) in U.S. cattle. The government has taken
several steps to keep mad cow corralled. Since 1989, the U.S. has banned
imports of live cattle and sheep from countries where the disease has been

found. And since 1997, it has prohibited giving ruminant (cud-chewing)

animals, including cattle, feed containing protein from other ruminants.
That's a key to prevention, because the disease most likely spreads to
humans and other animals through consumption of infected brain or nerve
Dr. Will Hueston, director of the Center for Animal Health and Food Safety
at the University of Minnesota, was quoted as saying, "For this disease to
develop in the U.S., we'd have to have an infected animal introduced and
then recycled into feed. The likelihood of this occurring is quite small."
But not as small as it could be, according to a critique the GAO issued in
January 2002. It
concluded: "The continuing absence of mad-cow disease in the United States
today cannot be sufficiently ensured by current federal prevention efforts."
Among vulnerable points the report identified:
A "small but steady" trickle of beef products from countries where the
disease exists, entering the U.S. through bulk mail and mislabeled imported
Failure to include enough "downer" cattle--cattle that die on farms rather
than in
slaughterhouses--in an ongoing USDA program that randomly tests brain tissue
from cattle displaying neurological problems. The GAO said those are
precisely the animals in which mad-cow disease might first appear.
Problems in policing the ban on ruminant-to-ruminant feed, including
record-keeping; the inability to locate some renderers, feed mills, and
distributors covered by the ban; and the failure to follow up quickly on
Industry use of "advanced meat recovery systems," machines that remove meat
carcasses more thoroughly than human butchers can. In spot tests of 63

samples of meat produced using this technology, 12 contained central nervous

system tissue, the GAO said.
Last summer, the USDA announced it will make companies test meat removed
this way to ensure that no spinal-cord tissue is mixed in.
In response to the GAO's criticisms, the USDA last winter announced it was
increasing the number of cattle it tests, including downer cattle. As of
last May, 6,097 downer cattle had been tested, vs. 4,464 during all of 2001.
The story says that except for beef destined for the organic and
"all-natural" market (less than 5 percent), cattle routinely are fed low
doses of antibiotics to make them gain weight faster than they would
Despite their size, cattle consume far fewer antibiotics than do hogs or
poultry, and many of those they take have no use in human medicine. Still,
cattle are dosed with enough human drugs that their meat can harbor
resistant bacterial strains. In 1997, the government started testing meat
from slaughterhouses for the presence of antibiotic-resistant strains of
Salmonella. In 2000, one-quarter of the Salmonella samples taken from beef
were resistant to tetracycline, 18 percent to ampicillin, and 15 percent to
In the spring of 2002, for the first time, an outbreak of
antibiotic-resistant Salmonella was traced to ground beef. Forty-seven
people in five states got sick from this germ, which proved resistant to 11
antibiotics. One victim, already ill with leukemia, died.
Like antibiotics, estrogen, testosterone, and progesterone are used to
promote growth. They're administered separately from feed, generally through

an ear tag. Any hormone residues in beef are minimal--according to the USDA,

a hen's egg has 45 times more estrogen than a quarter-pound burger--and
there's been no evidence of direct harm to human health.
Feedlots are, the story says, filthy, but they're unlikely to go away soon.
They produce two-thirds of the cattle slaughtered for food every year in the
U.S. (The rest come from operations that sell fewer than 1,000 cattle a year
and from dairy farms.)
Michael R. Taylor, an animal-policy expert who ran the USDA's Food Safety
and Inspection Service in the mid-1990s, was quoted as saying,  "The reason
we raise cattle like we do is that it's cheap."
Herded into megalots--the largest hold more than 50,000 animals--and fed
protein-rich corn and soybeans, cattle can reach marketable size months
before they would if left to graze on pasture. A feedlot's main byproduct,
of course, is manure--nearly 50 pounds per animal per day.
As any backyard gardener knows, dried cow manure is a terrific
fertilizer--when applied at a rate the soil can use. In feedlots, it
accumulates in vast drifts and heaps, and can blow away in odoriferous
clouds or make its way into streams. Two years ago, researchers in Consumers
Union's Southwest Regional Office documented the environmental consequences
in Texas, one of four states in which the beef industry is concentrated (the
others are Nebraska, Kansas, and Colorado). They found that cattle manure
had contaminated at least 388 miles of Texas streams and more than 21,000
acres of lakes. At times, manure dust blowing off feedlots caused the air to
exceed state and federal pollution standards.

With respect to E. coli O157:H7, Tom Besser of the Washington State

University College of Veterinary Medicine was quoted as saying, "I can't
tell a farmer a single thing he can do to reduce the occurrence of this
agent in his animals."
The story says that regular cleaning of feed bunks and water troughs
achieves only a momentary improvement, and if you wash a cow's hide before
removing it, the wash water spreads contamination. What does help are
repeated antibacterial treatments after hide removal and during later
processing, including steam-vacuuming, hot-water washing, pasteurization,
and rinsing with organic acids.
The story goes on to say that several studies have suggested that switching
cattle from corn to grass for their final weeks reduces the presence of
bacteria, though scientists are debating the practical significance of this
Irradiation has been discussed--and argued over--for years as a way of
microbiological contamination in produce and meat. Irradiation kills
bacteria within at least an inch of the meat's surface, but the food never
becomes radioactive. Although the CDC considers the technology safe, it's
not a panacea for keeping ground beef germfree. Careful handling during and
after processing is still needed to avoid recontamination.
Irradiated beef has had an uneven ride in the marketplace, having been
introduced at
supermarkets, then withdrawn for lack of consumer acceptance. Last summer,
technology's fortunes took an uptick as a major supermarket chain, Wegmans,
and Dairy Queen restaurants in Minnesota started selling irradiated ground

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