Irradiation is the only way we can confidently say the meat we eat is safe.
Mark Twain once said, "Get your facts first and then you can distort them as much as you want." Local restaurateur Lenny Russo surely should take Twain's advice to heart. His Nov. 19 commentary ("Tainted food calls for changes in farm practice") contained lots of distortions, but was terribly short on facts. He claimed that if we just raised our cattle on pastures, not feedlots, bought them from local farmers and used local processors, the E. coli problem in red meat would disappear. Not true.
Russo cited conclusions from a 1998 study from Cornell University that cattle fed a diet of grass, not grain, had very few E. coli, and that those bacteria that survived in the cattle feces would not survive in the human when eaten in undercooked meat, particularly hamburger. This statement is based on a study of only three cows rotated on different diets and for which the researchers did not even test for E. coli O157:H7. Unfortunately, the authors extrapolated these incredibly sparse results to the entire cattle industry. The Cornell study is uncorroborated in numerous published scientific papers from renowned research groups around the world. Finally, work conducted by the Minnesota Department of Health as part of a national study on foodborne disease recently showed that eating red meat from local farms was a significant risk factor for E. coli infection.
The bottom line for me, and what I've spent my professional career trying to do, is to never again experience a child suffering from the excruciating pain of an E. coli infection or have to console a grieving parent whose child has just died from eating an undercooked hamburger. Russo would understand this issue in an entirely different light if he had been with me when I had to explain to distraught parents that their young daughter's death was due to eating an undercooked hamburger, prepared by them, and the E. coli that caused her illness came from meat from a cow raised only on pasture grass and processed by the local meat packer. The cow also came from Grandpa's farm down the road.
I hold all parties that are part of food chain responsible for ensuring that E. coli-related foodborne disease never happens again. While maintaining good agricultural practices is important for animal health and environmental reasons, no credible research has identified a magic wand that a farmer can use to significantly lower the E. coli in our meat supply. And there is never a justification for failing to meet the highest sanitation standards possible in our meat processing plants. But we must realize that there is simply no way to ensure that microscopic contamination of feces on the carcass doesn't happen when the animal is disemboweled.
In the sterile surgical suites of our ultra modern hospitals, almost 3 percent of all "clean surgeries" still result in a post-surgical site infection. This means bacterial contamination from the patient's skin or from someone else on the surgical team infected that incision. If surgeons can't do any better under ideal sterile conditions, how can we expect a meat processing plant to guarantee that the carcass coming off the line doesn't have some hidden microscopic E. coli?
Finally, we can only hope that the consumer also will take responsibility for never serving undercooked ground beef or any inadequately cooked meat of poultry product. But, as we know, it still happens.
In the end, there is only one absolute measure to address this issue: food irradiation. This process, which primarily uses an electron gun -- just like the one in your TV, except at higher power -- that turns electricity into an energy that safely and cost-effectively kills bacteria like E. coli. It does so without significantly changing the flavor, color or nutrient content of the food. Routine irradiation of meat and poultry would do for those food commodities what pasteurization did for milk: make them safe. In the end, that's all that matters, particularly for those who have lost loved ones needlessly to E.coli infection.
Michael Osterholm is director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy and professor in the School of Public Health at the University of Minnesota.