Ground beef is the foundation of fast-food menus, a staple of school lunches and the main ingredient in countless hot dishes on family dinner tables. Yet this everyday food can also make people extraordinarily ill -- something that's too often forgotten between high-profile outbreaks of E. coli O157, a dangerous pathogen sometimes found in undercooked hamburger and on other foods.
Improved meat industry and restaurant practices, as well as better handling of hamburger by consumers, have helped reduce E. coli infections reported nationally over the past decade. But a Sunday New York Times story featuring a young Cold Spring woman's frightening battle with E. coli was a sobering reminder that improvements are still needed to make the nation's food supply safer.
Stephanie Smith, a 22-year-old children's dance teacher, became ill in the fall of 2007 after eating a hamburger patty produced by Minnesota-based Cargill. Smith developed a rare but potentially fatal E. coli infection complication that shut down her kidneys and ultimately left her paralyzed. Ten other Minnesotans became ill after eating the burger; incredibly, three developed the same dangerous complication, suggesting this E. coli strain was particularly nasty. Had it not been for the Minnesota Department of Health's world-class disease detectives, many more people would have become ill. State health officials' quick, decisive work linking the illnesses to the burger helped trigger the recall of about 850,000 pounds of uneaten beef from people's freezers.
In the firestorm of debate triggered by this story, one solution is legislation championed by Sen. Amy Klobuchar called the "Food Safety Rapid Response Act.'' Currently on hold in the Senate as health care dominates the political agenda, the legislation would enable scientists across the nation to replicate Minnesota's aggressive approach in tracing foodborne outbreaks.
The Times put a welcome spotlight on the common meat industry practice of making hamburger from raw material shipped in from a number of suppliers, including some from outside the United States. This global supply chain approach has led to problems in other industries -- pet foods, pharmaceutical manufacturing -- when there was inadequate monitoring of suppliers, particularly those in China. In the meat industry, this practice increases the risk that inadequate sanitation at one supplier can have a much wider impact than in years past. The industry needs to do more to police its suppliers and ensure that these firms test meat more frequently for pathogens. The government also needs to consider what steps it should take. The current industry practice is perverse. Companies that test products lose business if they detect contamination. Those that don't test and ignore the problem are rewarded with more contracts.
However, testing is not a panacea, something the Times neglected to mention. It's not possible to test every particle of ground beef for E. coli, yet that's what is needed to ensure it's 100 percent free of the pathogen. Missing a pinhead-sized particle of contamination in a chunk of burger may be all it takes to result in someone getting sick. "It's just not physically possible to test your way out of the problem,'' said Dr. Kirk Smith, a Minnesota Department of Health epidemiologist.
The Times story also failed to cite one of the most important food safety protection measures available: irradiation. This venerable technology briefly hits food with a low-dose of radiation, killing virtually all pathogens in it. It is not a substitute for better sanitation at processors, but an added step that takes food safety to the next level. Relatively inexpensive and widely available, irradiation is endorsed by many of the world's leading medical organizations. Why consumers haven't embraced it should be one of the first questions asked in the much-needed debate ignited by the Times story.