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October 5, 2009

Warning: This product may cause sickness, paralysis, and death

It's hard to draw any other conclusion from Michael Moss's New York Times blockbuster investigative piece on E. coli in industrial beef, which is centered on the plight of Stephanie Smith, a young dance instructor left comatose, near death and now paralyzed from eating a single Cargill hamburger. Of course, a "single hamburger" can include meat from hundreds, some would say thousands, of animals. As Moss puts it:

Ground beef is usually not simply a chunk of meat run through a grinder. Instead, records and interviews show, a single portion of hamburger meat is often an amalgam of various grades of meat from different parts of cows and even from different slaughterhouses. These cuts of meat are particularly vulnerable to E. coli contamination, food experts and officials say. Despite this, there is no federal requirement for grinders to test their ingredients for the pathogen.

This is why a food safety expert who helped develop tracking systems for E. coli in meat can declare that, "Ground beef is not a completely safe product." No kidding. The problem, however, is not with E. coli in general. The problem is that the particular strain of E. coli which infected Smith -- known as E. coli O157:H7 -- is virulent, deadly, persistent and endemic in industrial beef. How virulent, deadly and persistent? This much:

Food scientists have registered increasing concern about the virulence of this pathogen since only a few stray cells can make someone sick, and they warn that federal guidance to cook meat thoroughly and to wash up afterward is not sufficient. A test by The Times found that the safe handling instructions are not enough to prevent the bacteria from spreading in the kitchen.

In other words, if a piece of infected meat ends up in your kitchen, you are almost guaranteed exposure to it no matter how carefully you handle it.

READ THE REST OF THIS POST ON GRIST.ORG

Photo by ILoveButter used under a CC license

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