Why E. Coli Still Makes Its Way Into Your Meat Supply

Before you bite into that juicy hamburger, you might want to better understand how the meat industry creates, tests (or doesn’t test), then distributes ground beef. A detailed investigation by Michael Moss at the New York Times proves eating it is “still a gamble. Neither the system meant to make the meat safe, nor the meat itself, is what consumers have been led to believe.”

For one thing, food companies save money on ground beef by buying scraps of meat from multiple suppliers, instead of using cuts of whole meat. Two years ago, food giant Cargill was responsible for an outbreak of E. coli here in the states that left a woman paralyzed in the fall of 2007. The product responsible, “American Chef’s Selection Angus Beef Patties,” was made from a mixture of meat sources:

Grinding logs and other Cargill records show that the hamburgers 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.

What’s more troubling is that although the USDA recommends that grinders test each source of meat first for contamination, most don’t because it would eat into profits. That’s why Cargill never knew where the bad meat came from, even though it detected E. coli in a finished batch of burgers several months before the 2007 outbreak.

The United States Department of Agriculture, 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.

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, according to officials at two large grinding companies. Slaughterhouses fear that one grinder’s discovery of E. coli will set off a recall of ingredients they sold to others.

So does any company put safety over profits? Is there any way to find safe ground beef without having to buy steak yourself and pay a butcher to grind it? Try Costco. For the last 10 years, they’ve been voluntarily testing all of their meat before grinding.

Craig Wilson, Costco’s food safety director, said the company decided it could not rely on its suppliers alone. “It’s incumbent upon us,” he said. “If you say, ‘Craig, this is what we’ve done,’ I should be able to go, ‘Cool, I believe you.’ But I’m going to check.”

Costco said it had found E. coli in foreign and domestic beef trimmings and pressured suppliers to fix the problem. But even Costco, with its huge buying power, said it had met resistance from some big slaughterhouses. “Tyson will not supply us,” Mr. Wilson said. “They don’t want us to test.”

That’s why Costco sounds like one of the safest bets you can make if you buy ground beef. By comparison, a 2007 survey of grinders showed that only 6% of them followed Costco’s safety protocol of testing source meat before grinding, while half of them didn’t even bother to test the finished product.

“E. Coli Path Shows Flaws in Beef Inspection” [New York Times]
(Photo: VirtualErn)