Let us admit it – we love our hamburgers! No barbecue party is complete without grilling burgers, the smoke filling the air as you enjoy a couple of beers with friends gathered around the grill. McDonald’s serves millions of hamburgers each day. And if you include other fast food outlets and restaurants, the total number would probably reach tens of millions every day. If we had one, you could say the hamburger has become our national food!
When we eat a hamburger, getting sick is probably the last thing on our mind. It is cheap, readily available and tastes good. Yet, 8000 people have become sick by eating contaminated beef in 16 E. coli outbreaks in the last 3 years. The number may seem small given the very large amount of ground beef produced and consumed in the United States. But what if you or your child is the one getting sick next time. What if it makes you so sick that you have to be put into a coma and when you come out of it, you cannot even walk because you are paralyzed from the waist down. Shocking, I know, but that is what happened to 22 year old Stephanie Smith according to a recent New York Times story.
What is inside that packet of ground beef or ready-to-cook beef patties that can make you so sick?And how come we cannot test for the nasty E. coli bacteria so the contaminated meat does not reach the store shelves?
Ground beef is made from a lot of different cow parts and trimmings from a lot of different cows. In her book Safe Food, Marion Nestle cites a study which says that 1 pound of ground beef can contain meat from more than 400 cattle! The New York Times article E. Coli Path Shows Flaws in Beef Inspection describes in detail how different raw materials from far flung slaughterhouses end up at a meat processor’s plant, usually without any testing. The final product is supposed to be tested for contamination, but there is no guarantee that everything will be tested before shipping out. Usually it is too late before contamination is detected. Although there is a product recall to protect customers, some do end up getting sick. And then it is not possible to trace the source of contamination because of too many different ingredients from too many different suppliers.
Clearly, the system is broken and something needs to be done. But no one has any smart ideas for a real fix. Not a surprise that most people are looking up to the Government. I hope you are not going to wait around for that to happen anytime soon!
Here are a few things you can do to safeguard your family’s health:
- Buy from a reliable store with high safety standards. Costco is taking several steps to ensure that the ingredients are tested before meat is ground.
- Ask the store manager about their safety record, sanitation and hygiene practices. Ask if they do any testing within the store.
- Do not buy ready-to-eat frozen patties. Go for the freshly ground beef packaged at the store. Check the expiration date to get an idea of how long the meat has been sitting in the store.
- Follow safe handling procedures. Cook thoroughly to ensure the inside temperature reaches 165 ºF measured by a meat thermometer. A word of caution – a recent NYT video Hamburger Confidential shows that these instructions are not sufficient to completely remove the risk of contamination.
But I think the best tip is what I tried this week after reading about it somewhere:
- Select your favorite beef cut and ask the meat department to grind it for you. I tried this at our local Publix, and they were happy to do it. This way, you will know exactly what is going inside your ground beef.
- You can also buy a meat grinder and do at yourself at home! We have not done it yet – but I read about it in Matthew Amster-Burton’s book Hungry Monkey – could be a lot of fun operating it with your toddler!
I will not say that you should stop eating red meat because it is not very healthy and it is known to increase the risk of cancer. Moderation is the key; after all there is no reason to give up enjoying a juicy burger once in a while. But when it comes to food safety, all it takes is just one incident to make your life miserable.
I would love to hear your ideas and tips for keeping ground beef safe.