Where’s The Beef? You May Not Want To Know.
Usually we don’t think of eating meat as a high stakes gamble with our lives, but consuming hamburger meat has become increasingly risky behavior, as highlighted in a recent article in the New York Times.
In the article in question, a young woman was paralyzed after eating hamburger meat contaminated by the particularly virulent strain of E. coli known as O157:H7. This is the same bacteria that caused an outbreak in 1994 that killed four children and is estimated to sicken tens of thousands of people each year, mainly through ground beef.
Though her situation was extreme, the underlying cause was hardly novel: contaminated hamburger from a large scale industrial producer. In fact, it seems as if we are regularly inundated with news about contaminated beef, which has been implicated in at least 16 outbreaks in the last three years alone. It makes you wonder, what exactly are we eating when we bite into that hamburger bun?
After all, it’s fair to say that we’ve reached a point where, in many instances, you’re taking a chance by eating ground beef, particularly when it has been made by industrial scale producers. This would encompass most of the pre-packaged ground beef that you buy in the store, as well as most offerings from fast food restaurants. Unless it has been ground on location by your local butcher, it has probably been produced by a select group of large scale corporations who might employ less than optimal safety practices in order to maximize profits.
These practices include the possible use of beef products that were not necessarily intended, or for that matter suitable, for human consumption. Unfortunately, most, if not all of these problem don’t come to light until something bad happens. This means that people get sick, and could tragically die, though a majority of the cases resolve themselves without intervention.
The reason is that O157:H7 is a nasty bacteria, causing cramps and bloody stool. In extreme cases, it can lead to hemolytic uremic syndrome, which is a life-threatening condition that can lead to kidney malfunction or failure. The result is a lifetime of complications including seizures, blindness, and paralysis. In the worst case scenario, it can be fatal. In the United States, hemolytic uremic syndrome is the principal cause of kidney failure in children and is most often caused by E. coli, specifically O157:H7.
Normally, eating a piece of beef is safe when it is cooked properly because any sort of contamination resides on the surface and is killed when it is cooked. The problems arise when the it is ground up. The grinding can bury any contaminants deep within the meat, especially when they include pieces that have been exposed to fecal matter. Unlike a steak, eating a rare hamburger exposes you to these pathogens.
The risks exist even though there are rules and regulations designed to safeguard the public against them. Part of the problem is that most meat suppliers (slaughterhouses) do not test the ground beef components before they sell them to processors, which could better help to identify any problems early on. Instead, processors only test the finished product, and then, only sparingly. Furthermore, though the USDA is responsible for ensuring sound practices, large scale meat suppliers wield enormous power and political clout.
The impetus, therefore, lies with us, the consumers. This is especially true in light of the fact that it takes only a few cells of this particularly virulent bacteria to make us sick, and some experts caution that current guidelines of handling and cooking meat simply might not be enough.
So keep a few things in mind if and when you eat ground beef. Try to find out where your meat comes from, and if possible, find a store that grinds their own. Buy local whenever possible. You’ll be not only getting a superior, more healthful (not to mention safer) product, but it’s good to know where your food comes from, and you’ll be helping your community.
Cook meat thoroughly, and always wash your hands after handling it. If you’re at a restaurant, order your burger well done. If you feel sick or think you may have ingested contaminated beef, contact your physician immediately.
Then there's the always the possibility of cutting back or simply eliminating beef from your diet, a practice that is purported to increase your lifespan, but that's a story for another time.