E.Coli Meat Just Gets A "Cook-Only" Label Slapped On

It’s legal for meat companies to sell meat with food-poisoning bacterium E. coli on it, as long it’s labeled “cook-only.” The result, say anonymous USDA inspectors speaking with the Chicago Tribune, is higher levels of E. coli are tolerated in the plants.

Relaxed standards increase chances of clean meat becoming infected. This “E. coli loophole” could be one reason for the surge in E. coli-related recalls lately. The USDA and food processors say there’s no danger, as long as people fully cook their meat.

Ew. We’re not sure we can order medium-rare again.

E. coli loophole cited in recalls [Chicago Tribune]


Edit Your Comment

  1. kris in seattle says:

    Sounds yummy.

  2. ppiddyp says:

    One of many reasons to buy meat from a real butcher, even if it costs more-you should eat less meat anyway!

  3. homerjay says:

    Well the theory is that its really a WAY bigger problem in ground beef than in steaks so you’re probably pretty safe with a medium-rare steak since the outside is cooked beyond 160. Ground beef, though– Who the hell DOESN’T cook that fully? Put down the tartare. Thats just nasty.

  4. Kavatar says:

    You’re probably safe with medium-rare steaks, but I don’t understand why every gourmet seems to think that medium-rare produces the best taste. I much prefer my steaks cooked through, and it has very little to do with eliminating bacteria.

  5. Cooking a steak to medium rare isn’t about taste … it’s about texture. Cooking, done properly, should NOT be affecting the taste of the steak at all. If you cook a steak to well, you end up losing a lot of the juices that keep a steak tender.

    I was in your shoes once. My dad always liked to cook his steaks ever so slightly (blue-rare verging on rare), and I hated it. So I always ordered mine well, sometimes Chicago-Well to compensate for it. Once I learned that the problem was that my dad had no idea how to properly cook a steak (he makes all the wrong choices: poking it with a fork, flipping it repeatedly, etc.), I learned how to properly cook a steak and found that medium-rare was about perfect.

  6. harshmellow says:

    When I was younger, I learned about a term in meat processing (or could be just food processing) called “allowable filth.” Sounds tasty doesn’t it?! Anyway, I guess e. coli falls into this category, along with dirt, rat tails, finger pieces, etc. The government allows a certain percentage of allowable filth. Might be time to Google the term and turn my stomach even more!! And no, I am not a vegetarian or a vegan. I eat meat…

  7. siskamariesophie says:

    As a European immune to the ewwwww-factor Americans like to ascribe to exotic food choices, I actually like a good beef tartare (Ironically, we call it “Americain”). This E. Coli loophole discriminates against my discerning palate. Quel horreur!

  8. UESC says:

    my comments won’t show up


  9. UESC says:

    my comments won’t show up

  10. hi says:

    Also on another note: They (the meat distributors) coat the meat with carbon monoxide to keep the meat looking red longer. People see the meat and it looks fine then they take it home cook it, eat it and then get sick. If you buy meat at a store cut it before you cook it and see if it’s brown on the inside and has a bad smell. I bought some the other day and it was disgusting. It looked fresh when I bought it but it had been coated with the carbon monoxide. Carbon Monoxide is a deadly poison. It’s why you have carbon monoxide detectors in your house, because it can kill you if you breathe it. I’m sure eating it is not good for you. It is also legal since 2002 for them to add carbon monoxide to meat. It’s called modified atmosphere packaging (MAP). Look into it.

  11. DrGirlfriend says:

    Tartare is not nasty. It’s nasty to make it with beef you already buy ground, which has been ground who-knows where. But a fresh cut of meat that’s been ground at a quality butcher shop, that’s different. The problem is that when beef gets ground, it gets tons of contact with blades, and the more contact you get, the higher the chances of passing somethin on to that meat. In a factory environment, where blades go through thousands of pounds of meat, you can honestly ask youself where that blade has been.

    And agreed that cooking a steak medium rare is about texture. But in my opinion, preserving the natural juices of the steak is also about flavor. A well-done steak will likely be tough to chew, and not have preserved any of the juiciness that enhances how the steak tastes.

  12. kimsama says:

    @siskamariesophie: @DrGirlfriend: Yum, agreed. Tartare = delicious. I haven’t had any problems making my own in my food processor (same with burgers — you can buy a nice sirloin or whatever and make your own).

    And medium rare (on the rare side ^_~) FTW. Although, obs, I like bleu, too.

  13. howie_in_az says:

    There’s poop in the meat.

  14. Veeber says:

    Carbon Monoxide is only bad for you when you breathe it in because it binds to your Red blood cells better than Oxygen and you essentially suffocate. it’s not really a problem eating it. MAP is annoying because it can be used to mask poor quality meat.

    Just grind your own meat. It tastes a lot better and you can add your own seasonings during the grind.

  15. Brad2723 says:

    At least they aren’t charging us extra for it.

  16. kellsbells says:

    The news is bad enough but the accompanying picture from Fast Food Nation – gah! That is the only time I can recall in recent memory (including KIDS) that I walked out on a film and refused to see the end. Way to hammer it home, Jezebel.

  17. shanaynay says:

    @Howie_in_AZ: Ayup. Cook it all you like — there’s still poo in your meat. Granted, it’s no longer infectious, as long as you cook it properly, but with all the insane warning labels on things because a segment of the population is intelligence-challenged, do we really think everyone can be trusted to cook properly?

    I don’t know. Living in southwest Missouri, I hear a lot of yammering about trusting the government. This is just one more reason why I don’t — it’s not here to protect us anymore, but to protect big business.

  18. timmus says:

    E. coli = Fecal bacteria

    Let’s not lose sight of that.

  19. XianZomby says:

    CO: Bad to breath, but not an issue when used to tint meat. Not any more than saying that salt on your food is “bad” because sodium binds with chlorine to make salt and “chlorine is a deadly gas!!!!” The CO rap is about dressing up food to make it look better than it is, not about the dangers of huffing auto fumes.

    Tartar: E. coli thrives on the surface of the meat. When they make tartar, they should cut away the six surfaces on a cube of quality, fresh beef, and then mince the inner portion of that cube. Along with the seasoning and egg and onion, etc. The e. coli, if it’s there, hits the stock pot.

    Allowable filth: Nobody is intentionally adding “filth” to food. And if a rat falls in, and they see it fall in, it would be criminal to not pull it back out. You cannot, in any natural food product, have 0% foreign material. A silo full of corn or wheat? Do you think in the tons of grain that’s there, there isn’t a single grasshopper leg, or aphid, or mealworm, or moth wing? 0% is impossible. Perfection is impossible. The difference between 0% “filth” and what’s allowed will always be a positive number, but that number will decrease with an increase in technology.

    E. coli: On the surface of meat. The surface on a chunk of meat increases exponentially when you put it through a grinder. Just like when you make ground beef. And thus, the growing and feeding area for e. coli increased exponentially when you grind beef. So cook it. Like you cook the salmonella out of chicken.

    Douchey: I’m sorry I’ve made a douche out of myself by tirading on.

  20. shanaynay says:

    @Xianzomby: you don’t cook anything “out” of meat. Pathogens are killed by cooking, but that doesn’t change the fact that they’re still there, and you’re still consuming them.

    Such a sunny view of slaughterhouse practices is amusing, at this juncture. Lots of criminal things go on. The fact remains that it should NEVER be legal to sell meat that’s known to be contaminated with E. coli (or anything else, really).

  21. ludwigk says:

    The real problem with this sliding inspections and saying “let the customer cook it longer” is cross contamination.

    Whether it happens at the processing plant where the met is packed, or when the meat is portioned at the grocery store, coming in contact with other meats, then getting handled by grocers, sitting in carts, going into grocery bags next to other foods, then going through peoples kitchens and eventually to the dinner plate, there are a bunch of points at which cross contamination can occur, making more people sick or dead.

    @xianzomby: Slicing off the surfaces of the meat to make tartar isn’t that great. The knife blade will still smear bacteria all over the inside of the meat, along with transferring it to the next thing the blade is used on. You have to seer the meat on all sides, then slice that off.

  22. Bay State Darren says:

    Um, what about those of us who appreciate a nice rare, or even blue rare [drool], piece of meat? I know I’m taking my chances a little when I cook this way with any beef or steak [but I have an aweson immune system], but can’t they maintain the system to the point of still allowing meat pretty much as nature intended, something millions of people enjoy? This is a rhetorical question of course: I know the USDA has no balls or teeth.

  23. XianZomby says:

    @shanaynay: Perhaps you believe I believed heat magically made the bad stuff “fly away?” There’s all kinds of pathogens, bacteria, germs and parasites in animal flesh. Nothing but moisture, fats or gasses exit a piece of cooking flesh — or are “cooked out.” But I think the concept of “cooked out” is appropriate enough to convey the concept that unless whatever organism it is we are talking about leaves toxins (or eggs perhaps) behind that can’t be destroyed by heat, then it is really irrelevant what is left — so long as it is dead.

  24. pattymc says:

    Back in the early 70’s I was a research assistant in the Religious Studies department at Penn State. My summer assignment was the potential ethical dilemmas posed by biological breakthroughs in fields like recombinant DNA research.

    I was alarmed to find that e.coli, the most prevalent bacteria in the human gut, had especially large genes and was a favorite of tinkerers.

    It could be worse. Heck, maybe it already is. For all we know Super Coli is wending it’s way through the population as we read about the old wimpy kind.

  25. shanaynay says:

    @Xianzomby: so you’re okay with meat known to be contaminated with feces being sold to consumers, as long as they’re told to cook it properly? Feces is feces, dead bacteria or no. It’s not that there’s fecal bacteria in the food — that’s inevitable, and why I don’t eat meat. It’s the knowing its there and saying “well, whatever — it’s not like there’s anything we can do about it.” This from the orgs overseeing our food supply is deeply disconcerting.

    I also take issue with your assertion that filth as a percentage is going down with increases in technology. So very, very not the case. Increased tech means faster and faster speeds and more and more cows, with less and less time and care spent properly processing each one.

  26. MrEvil says:

    @shanaynay: Don’t be such a weenie. Dead bacteria can’t hurt you. Only LIVING e.coli can cause you any health problems (and even then only in the very young and the elderly) If its dead via cooking there’s nothing to worry about.

    Also, if you think the meat packing industry is bad now, you need a SERIOUS lesson in how they used to do things. Read “the Jungle” by Upton Sinclair.

    I can also guarantee that the small time meat-cutter isn’t any more cleaner than a high volume packing house.

    Its not that nobody is cleaning the place, the problem is that the bacteria grow in all animal’s large intestines and as long as you have to disembowl them at the slaughterhouse you’re going to have contamination. Another problem too is that packing houses are VERY limited in what chemicals they can use to clean the lines. Otherwise you’ll end up with harsh cleaners in your meat rather than e.coli. About all they can use is an Iodine solution.

  27. shanaynay says:

    @MrEvil: I’ve read it, I’m not a “weenie,” and I’m not saying that dead bacteria can hurt anybody, I’m just saying it’s disgusting and shouldn’t be gov’t-sanctioned.

  28. XianZomby says:

    @shanaynay: That’s why I’m against irradiation. Irradiation makes food less likely to hurt consumers at home. But it also allows meat packers to “erase the sins” committed in the slaughter house. If nobody ever gets sick from meat, nobody will care what goes on in the slaughter house. And what will go on in the slaughterhouse is an increase in production speed that will result in less humane treatment of animals, poorer and more dangerous working conditions for employees, and less-than-safe handling of food. So yes, I am aware of this. Ethical and food safety issues aside… proper cooking of food kills things that will make you sick. And Americans are consuming less “poo” and other impurities today in their food — meat or otherwise — than they were 100 years ago. But they will never consume 0% impurities and pathogen carcasses, unless they stop eating food altogether. The best the government can do is look at the current state of technology and demand that manufacturers use that technology to bring impurity levels closer to 0% — or go out of business.

  29. miborovsky says:

    There’s E. coli in everything. EVERYTHING. Have some, it’s good for your intestines.