E-Coli in Your Burger



Recently, a New York Times article exposed the practices of the ground beef industry and inadequacies of USDA’s oversight. The industry’s desire to cut costs and the failure of the regulatory agency to have and/or implement safety protocols, has, at times, resulted in dire consequence. The article, for example, traces the sad story of 22 year old, Stephanie Smith, who was left paralyzed as a result of food borne-illness caused by E. Coli that Minnesota officials traced to a hamburger the woman ate with her family. Granted, Ms. Smith’s illness was rare and, according to the Centers for Diseaase Control and Prevention, the vast majority of E. coli illnesses resolve themselves without complications. Five percent to 10 percent, however, develop into a condition called hemolytic uremic syndrome, which can affect kidney function. And while most patients recover, in the worst cases, like Ms. Smith’s, the toxin in E. coli O157:H7 penetrates the colon wall, damaging blood vessels and causing clots that can lead to seizures.

To get the full flavor of the industry practices – no pun intended – and appreciate all the nuances that go into making ground beef, I invite you to read the entire article. Below, I highlight a few aspects of the industry’s practices that stand out in my mind.

Ground Beef

Contrary to what one might think, ground beef, in most cases, is not simply a chunk of meat run through a grinder. Instead, hamburger meat is often an amalgam of various grades of meat from different parts of cows and even from different slaughterhouses, located in different countries. For example, the hamburgers in Ms. Smith’s case were made from a mix of slaughterhouse trimmings and a mash-like product derived from scraps that were ground together at a plant in Wisconsin. The ingredients came from slaughterhouses in Nebraska, Texas and Uruguay, and from a South Dakota company that processes fatty trimmings and treats them with ammonia to kill bacteria.

Using combination sources results in a 25% savings for meat companies. But research shows that the low-grade ingredients, which are cut from areas of the cow that are more likely to have had contact with feces, are particularly vulnerable to E. coli contamination. Despite this, there is no federal requirement for grinders to test their ingredients for the pathogen. Moreover, most meat companies rely on their suppliers to check for the bacteria and do their own testing only after the ingredients are ground together. USDA, which allows grinders to devise their own safety plans, has encouraged them to test ingredients first as a way of increasing the chance of finding contamination. The NYT’s investigation, however, reveals that unwritten agreements between some companies appear to stand in the way of ingredient testing. Many big slaughterhouses will sell only to grinders who agree not to test their shipments for E. coli, because slaughterhouses fear that one grinder’s discovery of E. coli will set off a recall of ingredients they sold to others.


The NYT’s investigation also revealed that the potential for contamination is present every step of the grinding process. The cattle often arrive with smears of feedlot feces that harbor the E. coli pathogen which means that the hide must be removed carefully to keep it off the meat, a measure especially critical for trimmings sliced from the outer surface of the carcass. But being careful is not always permitted. Workers slicing away the hide, for example, can inadvertently spread feces to the meat, and large clamps that hold the hide during processing sometimes slip and smear the meat with feces. When that happens, some companies do not give their workers the opportunity to remedy the situation and thus safety measures go ignored in the name of efficiency and productivity. The NYT’s investigation, for example, found that one grinding company did not permit its employees to stop the flow of carcasses to clean their equipment.

USDA and Testing

Would it surprise anyone to know that the meat industry treats much of its practices and the ingredients in ground beef as trade secrets? Beside raising questions as to whether such a treatment strikes a proper balance between public safety and protection of a business’ practices, it also shines the spotline on USDA’s enforcement role, which is somewhat puzzling. On the one hand, one of the agency’s missions is ensuring meat safety and pursuant to this decree it has inspectors in plants and access to production records. On the other hand, the agency is required to guard the industry’s secrets. What if the same processes that the industry considers trade secrets leads to outbreak of food borne illnesses? Are the inspectors not allowed to use the evidence they obtained or is it that the investigation and enforcement is shrouded in secrecy? Even when there are recalls, is the agency supposed to sanitize the information it obtains before making it public? Undoubtedly, more research on USDA’s role is needed, but as it stands now, it appears that the agency stands in a somewhat contradictory position, guarding the secrets of same processes that may be detrimental to the public. Interestingly, an official with the USDA, Dr. Kenneth Petersen, suggested this contradiction when he said that the department could mandate testing, but that it needed to consider the impact on companies as well as consumers. “I have to look at the entire industry, not just what is best for public health.” But is USDA being overly generous to the industry, is the unaswered question.

The NYT’s investigation also found that neither the USDA nor the meat processing industry are enthusiastic about testing. For example, an Agriculture Department survey of more than 2,000 plants taken after the outbreak that caused Ms. Smith’s illness, showed that half of the grinders did not test their finished ground beef for E. coli and only 6 percent said they tested incoming ingredients at least four times a year.

In October 2007, USDA issued a notice recommending that processors conduct at least a few tests a year to verify the testing done by slaughterhouses. But after resistance from the industry, the department allowed suppliers to run the verification checks on their own operations.

In August 2008, U.S.D.A. issued a draft guideline again urging, but not ordering, processors to test ingredients before grinding. “Optimally, every production lot should be sampled and tested before leaving the supplier and again before use at the receiver,” the draft guideline said. It is a year later and the guidelines have not been made official. Industry officials, remembering the little man at a convenient time, argue that the cost of testing could unfairly burden small processors and that slaughterhouses already perform testing.

The NYT’s investigation raised a lot of eyebrows and got the attention of the Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack, who issued a press release soon after the article’s publication. The message of the press release was clear: it is safe to eat hamburgers because the USDA is committed to food safety. One hopes that the USDA efforts the are more than a public relations maneuver but only history will bear out the efficacy of Agency’s efforts.

Read the original NYT article: E. Coli Path Shows Flaws in Beef Inspection.

Update: Senate introduced a Bill that would require E.Coli testing.