Junkfood Science: A sense of perspective — hamburger scares

October 05, 2007

A sense of perspective — hamburger scares

Across the country, scientists and their families have been stocking up on ground meat this past week. Why? Because of all the supermarket deals to be had.

It happens every time a huge food scare or food recall hits the news. The sensational media stories sound so frightening that consumers naturally react by avoiding that food altogether, just to be safe, just in case. The result is price specials for everyone else, but at the unfortunate expense of a lot of people needlessly frightened.

Haven’t you wondered why every day seems to bring more news of contaminated foods making someone sick? Every outbreak is being reported in terrifying detail. Not to downplay the people's suffering, but we’re left with a growing dread that our food supply is unsafe and that the government isn’t doing enough to keep us safe.

And that’s the point.

Remember, increased media coverage is not the same as an increased problem. Whenever the media inundates us with an onslaught of consistent messages that leave us feeling worried and anxious, that’s marketing... but marketing exactly what can be hard to spot. Sadly, most people don’t realize the current campaign is foremost about politics (we’ll get to that later*) and those profiting off these scares. Few people relish being used as political pawns or having their children unnecessarily frightened to advance someone’s agenda. They just want the truth and information they can trust to keep their families safe.

Last week brought the second largest recall in U.S. history and some are using this regrettable episode as further proof that our food supply is unsafe. This situation is tragic for all concerned, but most of all because the level of panic didn’t have to happen. It’s been driven by media and agendas, rather than calm, balanced presentations of the science and facts.

Gaining perspective

Missing in all of the scary news is a sense of perspective. We need to get a grip and see the larger picture. It’s so easy to forget just how much safer our food is today. Safer, not more deadly. Current understanding of microbiology, sanitation, refrigeration, pasteurization, pesticides, animal care, feeding and processing has had an enormous impact on improving the safety of our food, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Centralized food production and distribution have actually made safety regulations easier to enact and ensure consistent quality.

During the 1940s, for example, autopsies showed that 16% of people in the United States had trichinellosis in their muscles (eeooh!) and 300-400 cases were diagnosed every year, killing 10-20 people. Since then, such infections are a fraction of that. From 1991 through 1996, there were three deaths and an average of 38 cases per year.

As recently as 1900 just before my Grandma was born, 40% of Americans died from infectious diseases; and diarrhea and enteritis was the third leading cause of death in the U.S. In 1900, the death rate from gastritis, duodenitis, enteritis, and colitis was 142.7 per 100,000 people. That would equate today to nearly half a million people a year!

Compare those figures to today. The CDC estimates that 5,000 of us dies each year from foodborne-related pathogens. This sounds horrific and is, indeed, heartbreaking, but equates to just about 1.4 deaths per 100,000 people. That’s 1/100th of past generations. And foodborne illnesses continue to drop.

In contrast, nearly four times as many of us die simply from falls: 18,535 every year. [Yet, there are no headlines calling for walkers for all and government walking monitors. That would sound preposterous.]

Source of foodborne illnesses

No food is sterile. Nature isn’t sterile. Even the most pristine picturesque farms, crystal clear streams and wholesome foods are not sterile.

E. coli O157:H7 is an organism found on most farms. It lives in the intestines of healthy cows and farm animals, and is also found on cows’ udders and the equipment that comes in contact with raw milk. So, when the animals are slaughtered, the meat can be contaminated. E.coli is also found on fresh greens and lettuce, sprouts, unpasteurized milk and juices. Other sources of infection are swimming or drinking contaminated water. When someone gets sick, the germ is in their stools for a week or two afterwards and can spread when people don’t wash their hands. It’s especially common among children and caregivers who don’t wash their hands well.

No food producer, organic or conventional, can ever provide sterile food. That’s not ever going to happen. But they work hard to provide the safest food possible. Conspiracy theorists want us to believe otherwise, but companies are not out to kill their customers. Logically, not only is that bad for business, but food providers have made their life’s work feeding people, hardly an evil aspiration. There are people behind these businesses.

Part of every step in food processing is elaborate safety procedures to help effectively control E. coli and other pathogens, including Good Agricultural Practices and Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point (HACCP) programs. While no system is perfect, consumers would probably be surprised at the level of efforts that are made behind the scenes, and are continually improved as new science emerges, to make things even safer. Despite the scary tales, we can see the proof. Just since 2000, for instance, E. coli O157:H7 in ground beef has dropped 72%, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. And the CDC's FoodNet surveillance network reported in 2005 that the incidence of O157:H76 infections had fallen by 29% from 1996-98 levels. [And one day irradiation of beef may be accepted, which does eradicate E. coli.]

But it is critical to understand that just because germs are present doesn’t mean people need to get sick. No one ever needs to get sick from E.coli in hamburgers because there are very simple things we can do to prevent food poisoning. (The germ is killed at 160 degrees when cooking burgers.)We actually have the biggest role in the food chain in helping to prevent food poisoning. According to the CDC, over 55% of foodborne illnesses are due to user error: people not washing their hands and contaminating food during preparation, not cooking meat properly and drinking raw milk. Hand washing is the single most important thing we can do. According to the CDC, the FDA Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), and the American Medical Association in a 2004 publication called Diagnosis and Management of Foodborne Illnesses: A Primer for Physicians and Other Health Care Professionals, the tremendous progress that’s been made in reducing foodborne illnesses has likely led consumers to feel complacent about their responsibilities.

Information on how you can prevent E. coli infections is available from the Coordinating Center for Infectious Diseases at the CDC here. And the Be Food Safe for Consumers brochure, with four easy steps to safe food handling is available here.

Recalls don’t equal danger

On September 26, when Topps Meat Company voluntarily issued the first recall of 331,582 pounds of ground beef in efforts to protect its customers; based on consumption patterns, almost all of that had already been consumed.


As concerns grew and an FSIS inspection assessment found an undisclosed issue in their safety procedures, in order to do everything possible to protect customers and restore consumer confidence, on September 29th the unprecedented step was taken to recall every ground beef product the company had produced during the entire past year, bringing the recall up to 21.7 million pounds. Of course, just being recalled doesn’t mean that all of that meat was dangerous.

“Because the health and safety of our consumers is our top priority, we are taking these expansive measures,” said Vice President of Operations Geoffrey Livermore. “Topps is continuing to work with the USDA, state departments of health, retailers and distributors to ensure the safety of our consumers.” The company made extensive information on E. coli and the recalled products available on their website and established a consumer hotline for any questions or concerns from customers. Consumers are being encouraged to look in their freezers for any recalled product they might sill have. Complete information on the recalled products is available at http://www.toppsmeat.com

The CDC has now confirmed that 28 people had gotten sick from E.coli O157:H7 from Topps brand meat — that’s 28 people among 86.8 million quarter-pound burgers eaten (0.00003 percent). While it’s sad these 28 people got sick, no mention has been made that they didn’t have to. It’s the elephant in the closet. For food scientists or public health experts to suggest such a thing would get them branded as industry shills and not caring for the safety of consumers.

Equally tragic is how this panic has devastated this family-owned company that’s been in business for 67 years. Known as the “Hamburger People,” for four generations they’d taken pride in their natural product and had never had a recall in their company’s history. But a recall this large economically destroyed them, and the company went out of business today, putting 87 people out of work and bankrupting this family’s business. While some may celebrate another food producer down, and hungry lawyers are lining up to file class action suits, this closure does nothing to make the ground beef we eat any safer.

The Topps recall — Cliff Notes version

The entire saga was outlined in detail at a USDA tele-news conference yesterday. We learned that on August 31, a consumer reported to the FSIS consumer complaint system that their child had become ill and that same day a field investigator had been sent out to their home in Florida to collect the leftover products from their freezer. It was immediately sent to a regulatory laboratory in Athens, Georgia.

On September 7th, the test results came back positive for E.coli O157 and they immediately started the next line of testing. This secondary testing was to determine which of the hundreds of strains of E. coli O157 it was, to help pinpoint the source. This is known as DNA fingerprinting, which is described in the CDC October 2nd update here. On September 8th, the laboratory also tested products from the Topps plant and 13 tests came back negative.

While some are complaining that the government didn’t act fast enough in the recall, as Dr. David Goldman of the Office of Public Health Science at the FSIS stressed, at this point they couldn’t say with any certainty that the contamination from an opened package in someone’s home came from the processing plant. And few consumers, if they thought about it, would want the government to be able to step in and shut down a business based on one test from an opened container and one citizen complaint.

On September 22nd, said Dr. Goldman, they learned the test results from two illnesses in New York state were connected with the DNA fingerprinting, but they were different from the E.coli fingerprint from the first case in Florida. “On September 24th, New York state alerted FSIS to the fact that its state officials had tested a box of hamburger patties that they obtained in a supermarket and was unopened, and that this box also tested positive for E. Coli 0157:H7. The next morning, FSIS reconvened its Recall Committee and the recall was issued.”

There were several factors in this case which complicated their investigation, Dr. Goldman said, but they still want to work on their processes to tighten the delay between test results and recalls.

Remember how natural it is to want assurances of complete safety when we feel afraid? It may seem intuitive to believe that more testing means greater safety, but testing will never be what will best ensure our safety. The FSIS had actually doubled its E.coli sampling and testing of meat processors this past summer after sporadic reports of recalls, and not found a single positive test result. It is physically impossible to ever test enough foods to make people feel safe when they’re afraid, short of testing every morsel before it passes their lips. And food would be so expensive and no longer fresh, we wouldn’t want that, either. What will keep us safest is science and evidence-based safe practices.

Undeniably, given the enormity of food products produced every day, safety measures in the food industry have worked remarkably well in providing safe food for hundreds of millions of Americans, with plenty left over to help feed the hungry around the world. Our food supply is the safest in the world and the safest we’ve enjoyed in the history of our country. Sure, it’s not perfect and they’ll continue to work to do things better and make our food safer to eat.

But are we?

© 2007 Sandy Szwarc

* Why political agendas have to get so ugly and scare innocent people in order to advance their causes is one of the not nice things about all of this. If you’re wondering why you’ve been hearing so much doom and gloom about our food supply lately, a major impetus has been that Farm Bill. It’s coming up for a vote and will decide how $300 million in taxpayer funds will spent over the next five years, as well as the policies for all aspects of our food and farm system.

The other side is hard to find in mainstream media. One aspect pursuant to this story has to do with testing. Some are hoping to transform agriculture through mandates for “healthy" foods, defining healthy as locally-grown organic produce. Among their efforts are claims that a version of the Bill would weaken food safety standards and require fewer federal inspections of meat and poultry that come from outside our states. According to the NASDA, the national association of State Departments of Agriculture, these scares are completely false. They are simply “referring to a provision in the Farm Bill that would allow state-inspected meat and poultry to be sold across state lines," said the NASDA. "There are absolutely no food safety issues at hand with this legislation.” The Farm Bill legislation doesn’t change food safety standards. It simply allows state-inspected meat and poultry to be sold across state borders, like every other food, they've said. In actuality:

State-inspected plants are required to operate equal to federally inspected plants. Pound for pound, a state product has received more “hands on” inspection than a federal product... In fact, the NASDA officials note:“There has never been a documented food-borne illness from state-inspected meat and poultry products.” State-inspected food products, including dairy, milk, fruit, vegetables, fish and seafood, are freely marketed across the country. Meat and poultry are the only state-inspected food commodities that are prohibited from being sold across state lines. This doesn’t make sense.

In other words, this sounds like an attempt to limit competition from non-local producers by scaring consumers into believing food from processors is unsafe.

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