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photo of burgers cookingintroduction...april 18, 2002

What could be simpler than a hamburger? Take a ground beef patty, throw it on a grill, wait a few minutes as the fat sizzles, maybe add some cheese, and stick it on a bun. It's a thoroughly American operation that takes place countless times a day all around the country. The average American, in fact, eats three hamburgers a week. And with more meat available than ever before, today's beef costs 30 percent less than it did in 1970, making it that much more attractive to consumers looking for a quick, cheap meal.

But in "Modern Meat," FRONTLINE goes inside the world of the modern American meat industry and shows that this once simple product, the hamburger, is no longer so simple.

Nor can you assume that it's safe. While sweeping changes in the meat industry -- making it vastly more centralized, high-tech, and efficient -- have led to the low prices, the transformation has also introduced new risks. In "Modern Meat," FRONTLINE speaks with scientists and industry observers who say that pooling thousands of cows in feedlots makes it easier for bacteria to spread from one animal to another.

"Cows tend to produce feces [and] feces is primarily bacteria," says Glenn Morris, a microbiologist at the University of Maryland and a former USDA official. "In the larger feedlots," he adds, "there's a greater chance for the passage of microorganisms back and forth. All of that contributes to the spread of microorganisms like E. coli."

Dr. Robert Tauxe is also concerned. "The new highly industrialized way we produce meat has opened up new ecological homes for a number of bacteria," says Tauxe, head of the Centers for Disease Control's Foodborne and Diarrheal Diseases branch. Gone are the days, Tauxe says, when a hamburger patty contained the meat from a single cow; with enormous numbers of cattle now being herded, fattened, slaughtered, and ground up together, it's virtually impossible to determine how many cows contribute to a single burger.

The meat industry, however, is confident that America's meat is safer than ever, and it has resisted new federal regulations. But the fact remains that contaminated meat is getting through the system. Last year, more than 100 million pounds of meat had to be recalled.

This FRONTLINE report tracks how the consequences of bacterial contamination can be deadly. In 1993, Jack in the Box hamburgers contaminated with a deadly strain of E. coli killed four children and caused more than 700 illnesses. Carol Tucker Foreman, head of food safety at the Consumer Federation of America and a former USDA official, points to another case in which 16 deaths and five stillbirths were connected to hot dogs contaminated with listeria. Just last summer, the nation's largest meat processor had to recall 300,000 pounds of beef contaminated with E. coli bacteria.

Following the Jack in the Box outbreak, the government proposed a new inspection system -- known as "HACCP" (Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points) -- that would for the first time require microbial testing to detect invisible yet harmful bacteria such as E. coli and salmonella. Since the start of this new system, the USDA has reported a drop in salmonella contamination of ground beef, while the Centers for Disease Control also has seen a decrease in the incidence of certain food-borne illnesses.

Yet "Modern Meat" shows why the American consumer still may face serious risks. There is increasing evidence that the modern meat industry's widespread use of antibiotics to promote growth and keep livestock healthy may result in the development of bacterial strains that are resistant to antibiotic treatment. Global free trade has increased the risk of diseased cattle or beef coming into the U.S. and decimating the livestock population. And some contend that a recent court ruling further threatens the safety of the nation's food supply. FRONTLINE examines a lawsuit filed by a Texas meat-grinding company, Supreme Beef, against the U.S. Department of Agriculture. When the USDA effectively shut down the company after it failed bacterial contamination tests three times -- once after nearly 50 percent of its meat was found to be contaminated with salmonella -- the company sued. Supported in its lawsuit by the National Meat Association, Supreme Beef charged that the government didn't have the right to shut down its operations simply because it failed to meet the USDA salmonella standards. Last month, a federal appeals court ruled in favor of the company.

"I think what the [meat] industry is saying is that they don't want to be accountable for the product that they're selling," says Eric Schlosser, author of Fast Food Nation, an exposé of the meat and fast-food industry. "This industry has fought against food-safety inspection for 100 years."

"It's not that the beef industry is fighting standards that are meaningful, that improve the wholesomeness of the product," counters Patrick Boyle, president of the American Meat Institute. "The beef industry has reservations about unscientific standards that have no relation to the safety of our products."

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