USDA Demands Safe Hamburgers—Greens Object
November 12, 2002
by Dennis T. Avery
The government is afraid our love affair with the hamburger will kill us. They’re afraid to say it out loud, but they want our hamburgers irradiated to kill virulent bacteria. Specifically, the U.S. Department of Agriculture is afraid of Americans being attacked by the deadly E. coli O157 bacteria.
They’ve got good reason to worry. USDA recently had to issue a recall notice for another 2.8 million pounds of hamburger—after most of the meat had been sold and consumed—because tests showed contamination with O157. USDA’s survey of beef plants in 2000 found 28 percent of the cattle slaughtered infected with O157 while 43 percent of beef carcasses were contaminated with it.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control boosted its estimate of O157 dangers. It now estimates 62,000 illnesses per year, 1,800 hospitalizations, and 52 deaths. O157 also has a nasty habit of causing permanent organ damage among its survivors—for example to your kidneys, liver, or eyesight.
Cooking a hamburger until it is dry and leathery will almost certainly kill any O157—but we don’t prefer dry, leathery hamburgers. Inevitably, people want them juicy and pink in the middle—and that currently means danger.
The Agriculture Department just issued a new demand that beef plants take immediate, specific steps to prevent O157 contamination of ground beef. In practice, this will mean zapping your hamburger with electrons or gamma rays.
Steam cleaning the carcasses or treating them with ozone would also reduce the E. coli danger. However, as the American Council on Science and Health points out, only irradiation can kill the O157 after the hamburger is packaged, eliminating any chance for the meat to get re-contaminated.
Hamburger is a particular problem because a few bacteria ground up into a beef patty can proliferate to dangerous levels given time and poor refrigeration. The same few bacteria on the outside of a steak can’t multiply rapidly, and the outside of the steak always gets high heat when it is cooked.
The organic and “natural” food fans are up in arms. They claim that irradiation is dangerous, changes the meat’s flavor—and is only needed to cover up the unsanitary conditions on “factory farms.”
The Greens aren’t exactly telling the truth here.
The low doses of irradiation needed to kill bacteria don’t change the meat or the flavor, except to keep it fresher tasting. (Irradiation also kills the microbes that cause food spoilage.)
The claim that only “factory farms” harbor the bacteria is false. O157 was first identified on a Canadian prairie ranch, and USDA researchers say they’ve found it in every cattle herd they’ve checked.
The Greens may actually be afraid that irradiating hamburgers will be the biggest boon to consumer health since pasteurized milk—which would give conventional farmers an obvious safety advantage. When the USDA drafted its new standards for organic food, it left open the option of organic food being irradiated, and got 100,000 angry protests from organic believers. Thus, the organics barred themselves from irradiating.
The World Health Organization, the American Medical Association, and the American Dietetic Association have recommended irradiation for years. “Food irradiation does not make food radioactive any more than a dental x-ray makes your teeth radioactive,” says Dr. Elizabeth Whelan of the American Council on Science and Health.
Consumers just never saw a big reason to want irradiated food until 1993, when several kids died after eating O157-contaminated hamburgers in Washington state. Even then, it took another seven years to get red meat irradiation approved by the Food and Drug Administration. (Government agencies move slowly at best, and organic fans are fierce antagonists.)
Now, a major new plant for irradiating meat has been built in Iowa, and the Iowa Cattlemen’s Association sponsored a tent restaurant at this year’s State Fair featuring irradiated hamburgers that were both juicy and safe. Dairy Queen is test-marketing irradiated hamburger in Minnesota. The process will add only about a cent per pound to the hamburger’s cost.
It took decades for us to accept auto seat belts, and nearly 50 years to accept pasteurized milk. Now it may be time for safer hamburgers. I hope so. I love them pink in the middle.
This article appeared in the Knight-Ridder Tribune on October 11, 2002, and is reprinted with permission.
Dennis T. Avery is based in Churchville, VA, and is director of the Hudson Institute's Center for Global Food Issues.