From the New York Times:
Stephanie Smith, a children’s dance instructor, thought she had a stomach virus. The aches and cramping were tolerable that first day, and she finished her classes.
Then her diarrhea turned bloody. Her kidneys shut down. Seizures knocked her unconscious. The convulsions grew so relentless that doctors had to put her in a coma for nine weeks. When she emerged, she could no longer walk. The affliction had ravaged her nervous system and left her paralyzed.
Ms. Smith, 22, was found to have a severe form of food-borne illness caused by E. coli, which Minnesota officials traced to the hamburger that her mother had grilled for their Sunday dinner in early fall 2007.
“I ask myself every day, ‘Why me?’ and ‘Why from a hamburger?’ ”Ms. Smith said. In the simplest terms, she ran out of luck in a food-safety game of chance whose rules and risks are not widely known.
Meat companies and grocers have been barred from selling ground beef tainted by the virulent strain of E. coli known as O157:H7 since 1994, after an outbreak at Jack in the Box restaurants left four children dead. Yet tens of thousands of people are still sickened annually by this pathogen, federal health officials estimate, with hamburger being the biggest culprit. Ground beef has been blamed for 16 outbreaks in the last three years alone, including the one that left Ms. Smith paralyzed from the waist down. This summer, contamination led to the recall of beef from nearly 3,000 grocers in 41 states.
Ms. Smith’s reaction to the virulent strain of E. coli was extreme, but tracing the story of her burger, through interviews and government and corporate records obtained by The New York Times, shows why eating ground beef 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.
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.
The frozen hamburgers that the Smiths ate, which were made by the food giant Cargill, were labeled “American Chef’s Selection Angus Beef Patties.” Yet confidential 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.
Using a combination of sources — a practice followed by most large producers of fresh and packaged hamburger — allowed Cargill to spend about 25 percent less than it would have for cuts of whole meat.
Those low-grade ingredients are cut from areas of the cow that are more likely to have had contact with feces, which carries E. coli, industry research shows. Yet Cargill, like most meat companies, relies on its suppliers to check for the bacteria and does its own testing only after the ingredients are ground together. 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.
“Ground beef is not a completely safe product,” said Dr. Jeffrey Bender, a food safety expert at the University of Minnesota who helped develop systems for tracing E. coli contamination. He said that while outbreaks had been on the decline, “unfortunately it looks like we are going a bit in the opposite direction.”
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.
Cargill, whose $116.6 billion in revenues last year made it the country’s largest private company, declined requests to interview company officials or visit its facilities. “Cargill is not in a position to answer your specific questions, other than to state that we are committed to continuous improvement in the area of food safety,” the company said, citing continuing litigation.
The meat industry treats much of its practices and the ingredients in ground beef as trade secrets. While the Department of Agriculture has inspectors posted in plants and has access to production records, it also guards those secrets. Federal records released by the department through the Freedom of Information Act blacked out details of Cargill’s grinding operation that could be learned only through copies of the documents obtained from other sources. Those documents illustrate the restrained approach to enforcement by a department whose missions include ensuring meat safety and promoting agriculture markets.
Within weeks of the Cargill outbreak in 2007, U.S.D.A. officials swept across the country, conducting spot checks at 224 meat plants to assess their efforts to combat E. coli. Although inspectors had been monitoring these plants all along, officials found serious problems at 55 that were failing to follow their own safety plans.
“Every time we look, we find out that things are not what we hoped they would be,” said Loren D. Lange, an executive associate in the Agriculture Department’s food safety division.
In the weeks before Ms. Smith’s patty was made, federal inspectors had repeatedly found that Cargill was violating its own safety procedures in handling ground beef, but they imposed no fines or sanctions, records show. After the outbreak, the department threatened to withhold the seal of approval that declares “U.S. Inspected and Passed by the Department of Agriculture.”
In the end, though, the agency accepted Cargill’s proposal to increase its scrutiny of suppliers. That agreement came early last year after contentious negotiations, records show. When Cargill defended its safety system and initially resisted making some changes, an agency official wrote back: “How is food safety not the ultimate issue?”
...With seven million pounds produced each week, the company’s product is widely used in hamburger meat sold by grocers and fast-food restaurants and served in the federal school lunch program. Ten percent of Ms. Smith’s burger came from Beef Products, which charged Cargill about $1.20 per pound, or 20 cents less than the lean trimmings in the burger, billing records show.
An Iowa State University study financed by Beef Products found that ammonia reduces E. coli to levels that cannot be detected. The Department of Agriculture accepted the research as proof that the treatment was effective and safe. And Cargill told the agency after the outbreak that it had ruled out Beef Products as the possible source of contamination.
But federal school lunch officials found E. coli in Beef Products material in 2006 and 2008 and again in August, and stopped it from going to schools, according to Agriculture Department records and interviews. A Beef Products official, Richard Jochum, said that last year’s contamination stemmed from a “minor change in our process,” which the company adjusted. The company did not respond to questions about the latest finding.
In combining the ingredients, Cargill was following a common industry practice of mixing trim from various suppliers to hit the desired fat content for the least money, industry officials said.
In all, the ingredients for Ms. Smith’s burger cost Cargill about $1 a pound, company records show, or about 30 cents less than industry experts say it would cost for ground beef made from whole cuts of meat.
Ground beef sold by most grocers is made from a blend of ingredients, industry officials said. Agriculture Department regulations also allow hamburger meat labeled ground chuck or sirloin to contain trimmings from those parts of the cow. At a chain like Publix Super Markets, customers who want hamburger made from whole cuts of meat have to buy a steak and have it specially ground, said a Publix spokeswoman, Maria Brous, or buy a product like Bubba Burgers, which boasts on its labeling, “100% whole muscle means no trimmings.”
To finish off the Smiths’ ground beef, Cargill added bread crumbs and spices, fashioned it into patties, froze them and packed them 18 to a carton.
The listed ingredients revealed little of how the meat was made. There was just one meat product listed: “Beef.”
...The retail giant Costco is one of the few big producers that tests trimmings for E. coli before grinding, a practice it adopted after a New York woman was sickened in 1998 by its hamburger meat, prompting a recall.
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.”
....Ms. Smith’s illness was linked to the hamburger only by chance. Her aunt still had some of the frozen patties, and state health officials found that they were contaminated with a powerful strain of E. coli that was genetically identical to the pathogen that had sickened other Minnesotans.
Dr. Kirk Smith, who runs the state’s food-borne illness outbreak group and is not related to Ms. Smith, was quick to finger the source. A 4-year-old had fallen ill three weeks earlier, followed by her year-old brother and two more children, state records show. Like Ms. Smith, the others had eaten Cargill patties bought at Sam’s Club, a division of Wal-Mart.
....In the wake of the outbreak, the U.S.D.A. reminded consumers on its Web site that hamburgers had to be cooked to 160 degrees to be sure any E. coli is killed and urged them to use a thermometer to check the temperature. This reinforced Sharon Smith’s concern that she had sickened her daughter by not cooking the hamburger thoroughly.
But the pathogen is so powerful that her illness could have started with just a few cells left on a counter. “In a warm kitchen, E. coli cells will double every 45 minutes,” said Dr. Mansour Samadpour, a microbiologist who runs IEH Laboratories in Seattle, one of the meat industry’s largest testing firms.
With help from his laboratories, The Times prepared three pounds of ground beef dosed with a strain of E. coli that is nonharmful but acts in many ways like O157:H7. Although the safety instructions on the package were followed, E. coli remained on the cutting board even after it was washed with soap. A towel picked up large amounts of bacteria from the meat.
Dr. James Marsden, a meat safety expert at Kansas State University and senior science adviser for the North American Meat Processors Association, said the Department of Agriculture needed to issue better guidance on avoiding cross-contamination, like urging people to use bleach to sterilize cutting boards. “Even if you are a scientist, much less a housewife with a child, it’s very difficult,” Dr. Marsden said.