There is no reason that hamburger, that most American of meats, should be unsafe. But an exhaustive and chilling New York Times investigation has revealed "why eating ground beef is still a gamble" and how few safeguards are in place to protect people from a virulent strain of E. coli.
Food safety must be the top priority of meat processors and regulators, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture must require more and better testing to stop pathogens before they sicken and kill people. Just in the past three years, there have been 16 outbreaks of E. coli blamed on hamburger. Tens of thousands of people have become ill.
The New York Times probe demonstrates how a pound of hamburger might actually come from several packing plants — fatty trimmings and beef products are combined to create inexpensive ground beef. Each slaughterhouse has the potential to introduce pathogens, and often the ground beef isn't tested for E. coli until it is mixed, making it difficult to track an outbreak back to its source. That is apparently by design.
The newspaper reported that many big slaughterhouses will sell only to grinders who don't test for E. coli before the meat is mixed. That way, outbreaks won't be traced directly back to them, which could trigger massive recalls.
Costco, as one of the few big producers that tests trimmings for E. coli before grinding, should be applauded. And Publix conducts regular and surprise audits of its meat suppliers for quality assurance and specifically prohibits use of some meat trimmings.
But the consumer should not have to rely on corporations to ensure food safety. It is up to government to keep the American food supply uniformly safe because, as the New York Times demonstrated by preparing some meat, once E. coli is in the kitchen, it is hard to eliminate. Dosing meat with a similar but nondeadly strain of E. coli, the newspaper carefully followed safety instructions on the packaging, but bacteria remained on the cutting board after washing and was transferred to a towel.
The federal government needs to ensure hamburger safety by requiring and enforcing sanitary practices and E. coli testing at each step of meat production. It is ludicrous to allow suppliers to put profit and expedience via willful ignorance ahead of food safety.
The federal government should also require more candid labeling so that consumers can be informed of what they are buying. That pound of cheap hamburger might seem a bit less appetizing if the label discloses that it comes from various pieces of cattle in several states and that it may or may not have been spot-checked for E. coli contamination. But until the government and the meat industry act, asking the butcher to grind up a cut of meat before a consumer's eyes is one of the few ways to know for sure what is in that hamburger.