Most experts agree that the meat supply in America is
safer than ever before. But since the Jack in the Box E. coli outbreak in 1993,
Americans are increasingly aware of the possibility that dangerous pathogens may be lurking
in their food. So how prevalent is food-borne illness and contaminated meat? And what can American consumers do to eat more safely? Here are some answers from former U.S. secretary of agriculture Dan Glickman, Dr. Robert Tauxe of the
Centers for Disease Control, Patrick Boyle of the American Meat Institute,
consumer advocate Carol Tucker Foreman, epidemiologist Dr. Glenn Morris, and journalists Michael Pollan and Eric Schlosser.
How Safe Is America's Meat Supply?
U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, 1995-2001
How safe is meat today?
Meat and poultry is safe. It's safer than it's probably ever been. I think it
could probably be made even safer. But it's probably the safest thing we eat,
because it's inspected, whereas seafood is not really inspected in this
country, and fresh vegetables and fresh fruits are not really inspected. A lot
of imported food is not really inspected. At least meat and poultry is largely
[The] big picture [is]: Food is pretty safe in this country. I mean, any
evidence of food-borne pathogens is bad. And [if] anybody gets sick and [dies],
[it] is a national tragedy. But, by and large, we have a pretty close to an
incident-free society in America, from the aggregate perspective. ...
There are still a significant amount of food-borne illnesses, too many.
But, from a big picture perspective, we do not have a national epidemic of
food-borne illness in this country ... . Saying that, it could be a hell of a
Chief, food-borne and diarrheal diseases branch of the Centers for Disease Control
How safe is our meat supply?
Our food supply is a lot safer than it was 100 years ago, but food-borne
disease remains an important public health problem. We estimate that there
are 76 million cases a year -- about one in three or one in four Americans have
an important food-borne disease every year. Much of it goes undiagnosed,
because people stay home for two or three days, or miss a couple of days of
work or school, but they don't see a doctor. ...
Let's look back over 30, 40, 50 years. Has there been a trend in terms of
The one food-borne illness we have the longest run of information on is
salmonella; collection of salmonella reports began in the 1940s. At the
beginning, there were a very small number of reports, but those increased in
the 1950s, and in the 1960s, and in the 1970s. They continued to go up and up
until about 1990. In 1990 and thereafter, salmonella began to level off. And in
the last five years or so, it actually seems to be decreasing.
We don't have as good information for other food-borne infections. But we know
that several other food-borne infections, like campylobacter and listeria,
have also appeared to decrease slightly in the last few years. These modest
decreases are a lot better than the regular increases we're used to be seeing.
But we've set targets for where we want to be in 2010, and food-borne disease
is not decreasing fast enough to get us there. ...
CEO of the American Meat Institute
If you look at USDA figures -- and I'm not attempting to minimize the food-safety challenge -- but if you look at USDA figures, the incidence of E. coli
in beef is less than 1 percent. We obviously want it to get to zero out of
every 100 tests. But today it's less than 1 percent. That's a reduction from as
recently as the mid-1990s. So that's progress. And the progress is attributable
to the investments in new technologies that we've implemented in our plan.
We've seen the salmonella rates going up from the 1940s, 1950s, 1960s, up to
the 1990s. We've seen the E. coli and the damage that it's done. Those are
probably two of the most obvious health effects [of the consolidation of the
meat industry]. And there are very high levels of food-borne illness. One in
four Americans sickened some time during the year with food-borne illness, 25
percent to 30 percent of those estimated to be from meat; 5,000 deaths. Those
You mentioned two pathogenic bacteria, E. coli O157:H7, and salmonella. In terms
of the meat and poultry supply, we began testing for E. coli O157:H7 in the
early 1990s, both industry and individual companies, as well as the federal
government as part of the inspection program. If you look at their data, the incidence of E. coli in all ground beef has
decreased from the early 1990s to the late 1990s. If you look at government
data on salmonella in raw meat and poultry products, it has decreased
dramatically throughout the 1990s. [According to] the public health data from the Centers for Disease Control ...
the incidence of salmonellosis, which is the disease attributed to salmonella,
has remained relatively stable, although it's decreased somewhat, even though
we've had a dramatic decrease in the amount of salmonella on raw meat and
poultry products. ... Salmonella [on] raw meat, down dramatically this decade.
Salmonellosis as a food-borne illness, down somewhat. Those are good trend
lines.E. coli O157:H7 in ground beef, down significantly in this decade. The incidence
of E. coli-related illness probably about stable, which suggests that just
reducing or eliminating pathogens on raw meat and poultry products, in and of
itself, is not really going to have the kind of public health impact that we
would hope. There are other factors at work. There are other sources that enter
the food supply, ones which we come in contact through nonfood sources that
cause public health illness in the United States. ...
We've made significant reductions in the presence of salmonella in raw beef, in
the presence of E. coli in ground beef. We're not to zero yet, but the trend
lines are very positive. And they're a direct result of the investments that
we've made in achieving and implementing a much more sophisticated process in
the beef industry. ...
How does the consumer know what is safe meat or not?
What the consumer should know is that the beef industry has made demonstrable
progress in achieving significant reductions in all bacteria on raw beef
products, pathogenic and nonpathogenic. That progress is quantified and
confirmed by ongoing USDA tests. And we continue to invest millions of dollars
in making further improvements in the safety and the wholesomeness of our beef
For the consumer, I would suggest that there is still a responsibility, even
with all this improvement, to handle the food in a proper manner. And that
means, cooking it properly; keeping it chilled before you cook it; store it
properly. It is a safe and wholesome food supply, but it is not a zero-risk
supply. And there are some responsibilities at the end of the process that
still exist, and frankly probably always will exist.
His New York Times Magazine article "Power Steer" (March 31, 2002) traces the life of a cow destined for slaughter
When the animals arrive at the meatpacking plant from their homes on the
feedlot, they're carrying quite a bit of manure. They've been sleeping in it
and resting in it, so their bodies are caked with it. They are then, of course,
passing through that door on their way to becoming food. So you need to make
sure that you remove their hides in such a way that you get all of the manure,
and none of it ends up on the meat. And a great deal of the effort, which is
now 99.9 percent of the time successful, is essentially keeping the manure out
of the meat. But it doesn't; it's not a perfect system. And it's bound to
happen, and does happen.
The problem is that that manure is particularly lethal, because it contains now
certain microbes like E. coli O157 is a strain of a common intestinal bacteria
which is now very common in the manure of feedlot animals. It's principally a
feedlot microbe. And if we ingest only 10 of those bacteria, they can kill us,
because they release this lethal toxin. The great problems that you've read
about of contaminated hamburgers and the Jack in the Box episode from several
years ago, are a result of this particular pathogen.
The story of this pathogen really illustrates the ecological links between the
health of these animals and the health of us. I was surprised to learn that E.
coli O157 is relatively new -- it wasn't isolated until the early 1980s -- and
that it essentially doesn't exist in the gut of animals that eat grass. It is a
problem associated with feeding animals corn.
And here's how it works. The rumen, which is not an acidic environment
normally, becomes acidic when it's fed corn. These [E. coli] bacteria evolved
to be able to withstand the acid of the rumen. So they are acid-tolerant
bacteria. Therefore, when they get into our guts -- through the manure, onto
the carcass of the animal, into the hamburger -- they can survive our digestive
processes; whereas in the past, if you had an equally lethal microbe resident
in the gut of a cow, it probably was not acid-tolerant, since it didn't live in
such an environment, so our stomachs gave it a gastric shock. ... All the acids
in our stomach would just kill it off. This is one of the protections built
into the food chain that we've messed with by acidifying the guts of these
animals. ...The industry's response -- and the industry is working very hard to keep the
meat clean, there's no question about it -- is a series of high-tech solutions,
such as sprays. There's a spray based on milk, made from milk, that seems to
kill it. They have these steam cabinets that they pass the meat through -- bags
of hot water. This kills a lot of the bacteria, or most of the bacteria. And now irradiating it. This is why we want to irradiate meat. Make no mistake,
the need to irradiate meat is because there is a certain amount of manure in
the meat. So the idea is to kill the microbes in the manure rather than keep
the manure out, which they're trying to do also. But better to kill it after;
it's easier and cheaper.
There is, it turns out, a much simpler solution. There is research that's been
done that shows simply by putting cows on grass or hay for the last several
days of their life, the E. coli population in their gut plummets by as much as
80 percent because, again, they can't tolerate the change in the pH in the
stomach. A scientist, a very well-respected researcher at Cornell named James
Russell, has proposed this in a series of articles. But as far as I can tell, the industry doesn't want to hear about it. It would
just be too cumbersome to bring all that hay into a feedlot. They would lose
gain; they would lose pounds at the end, switching them to hay, because they
don't grow as fast. ... It's King Corn. King Corn runs the American cattle
business. And this is considered an anti-corn message. So this research, as far
as I can see, has fallen largely on deaf ears.
Director of the Food Policy Institute at Consumer
Federation of America
Are you concerned about the safety of the meat supply?
I am concerned about the safety of the meat supply. People like to say
Americans have the safest food in the world. The evidence is that it's not
safe enough. We have 5,000 deaths a year attributed to food poisoning from
common bacteria. Many of these are traced to meat and poultry. I'd say that's
not acceptable. ...
None of us really know how safe the meat supply is. ... We know people get sick
from cross-contamination that comes from contaminated meat. And they get sick
from meat that hasn't been cooked enough to kill the bacteria. We know that
people get listeriosis from meat that is packaged and cooked and says "ready to
eat" on it. We know that people get sick from campylobacter in chickens. So the
meat supply may be safer than it was 10 years ago, but it sure isn't safe
We talk about a high level of food-borne illness, and even of deaths related
to food-borne illness. But you're not hearing on the news about large
outbreaks. Where are the victims of food-borne illness?
Well, I know about them. The Chicago Tribune ran a four-part series a
couple of months ago about children who'd been made ill by contaminated food in
school lunches over a period of several years in Chicago. Three years ago you
had the Sizzler E.coli 0157:H7 outbreak, where contaminated meat dripped on
fresh vegetables and one person died and a number were made ill. There was the
Ball Park Franks listeria outbreak three years ago, where 16 people died, and
five women had babies that were born dead, because it was fatal for fetuses.
Those were really played rather prominently in the news media ....
Professor and chairman of the department of
epidemiology and preventive medicine at the University of Maryland Medical
People talk about pathogens and microorganisms. What do they mean?
Most of the bacteria in the world are relatively innocuous so far as we humans
are concerned. They cover our skin, they fill up our intestinal tract. They
generally don't do us any harm. However, there are certain bacteria that,
because of certain genetic capabilities or the ways in which they have evolved,
have the ability to cause disease. Those are the ones we call pathogens. We say
they're "pathogenic," they cause disease in humans.
The ones we worry about most, in terms of the meat industry would be
salmonella, campylobacter and E. coli O157:H7. E. coli
O157:H7 tends to be a particular problem in terms of red meat, particularly
Anywhere from 1-3 percent of cattle may be carrying E. coli O157:H7
in their intestinal tract. If great care is taken when the cow is slaughtered,
there shouldn't be a problem. But even when care is taken, sometimes there's
the opportunity for contamination from bacteria that are present in the
intestinal tract getting onto the meat.
What about listeria?
Listeria is actually more of a problem for prepared meats. Salmonella, campylobacter, and E. coli 0157:H7 live in the intestinal tract of animals, and
consequently, they tend to get on meat or chicken during the slaughter process.
In contrast, listeria is an environmental microorganism. It lives in plants. It
lives in water droplets on the ceiling and in the drains on the floor. It tends
to cause problems in processing plants where foods come through that are not
subsequently re-cooked. For example, deli meats or hot dogs, or cheeses that
are not pasteurized.
Describe E. coli.
E. coli is a very common bacterial species. It's one of the most common
bacteria in your intestinal tract. However, there's certain groups of E. coli,
a certain subset of E. coli that carries some genes that make it particularly
nasty. Most of these strains fall under a group that we call E. coli
What's nasty about it?
They are particularly nasty because they produce certain types of toxins that
can cause pretty bad things to happen in humans. It can cause kidney failure,
it can do bad things to your red blood cells. If you get infected with E. coli
O157:H7, there is a possibility that you could develop what we call
hemolytic uremic syndrome, which can be, in some instances, a fatal illness.
Tracking Food-borne Illness
Chief, food-borne and diarrheal diseases branch of the Centers for Disease Control
How do you know how many people get ill? Is it an easy thing to
We've had some important improvements in our ability to measure food-borne
disease. The CDC has set up something called FoodNet, which is in several areas around the country. We
count all the food-borne diseases that are diagnosed in hospitals, and we
interview people at random to see how often they're sick and how often they
visit a doctor. We also check whether the doctor gets a sample that might allow
the illness to be diagnosed. Using those interviews, and using the information
we get from the laboratories, we make our estimates more precise than they were
But there are a lot of different food-borne diseases, and that makes for a
problem in trying to count a lot of different kinds of infections. Some
infections, like salmonella or E. coli O157 are regularly
monitored by the public health departments. Other infections, like some common
virus infections, are not counted by public health departments. ...
How does PulseNet work?
PulseNet is a network of all the state
public health laboratories around the country, which are now fingerprinting E.
coli O157 and other food-borne bacteria on a routine basis. There are a lot of
different fingerprints for E. coli O157, and usually no two will match in a
given period of time.
But if a state public health department sees a whole string of cases where the
fingerprints match, or if we at CDC learn of cases in different states that all
have the same matching fingerprint, that suggests to us that those people have
something in common. Our investigations then focus on those people, and try[ing] to
find out what they had in common. Using fingerprinting allows us to sharpen our analytic pencils. We can point to
cases that must be related, and others that are not related. By equipping all
of the state public health laboratories with this technology, they compare what
they find through the Internet. They can find clusters of E. coli infections
that have matching fingerprints in people who may be in 22 different states.
Because of PulseNet, we're able to identify outbreaks sooner than we used to.
And we're able to identify a new category of outbreaks that we never would have
identified before. ...
What Can Be Done?
Food safety expert hired by Jack in the Box after the E.
coli outbreak of 1993
[For the average person out there, how do they know whether they're buying
safe meat or not?]
[Consumers] can do the same things we do [at Jack in the Box]: make sure the
products they get are fresh, look good, are cold, not discolored or things like
that; keep them refrigerated and cold; follow shelf life information, coded
information. And then when you cook them and prepare them, make sure you wash
and sanitize your hands. Clean your utensils. ... Ground beef should not be
served medium rare or rare. Juices should run clear. Internal temperatures
should be over 155. ... Rare hamburgers need to be a thing of the past.
Why is it a thing of the past? What's changed that makes it impossible or
unsafe to have a rare hamburger?
Today we know that there are pathogens in these products that can cause
illness, injury, and even, conceivably, death. ... There's a number of bacteria
that can be present, and no testing program in the world today can guarantee
that there's none in there. That's just not possible. A testing program can
make sure that if it's there, it's at a very low, manageable level. But what
can a consumer do to make sure that they're not exposed to that? By thoroughly
cooking [meat], all those bacteria are killed, and that hazard or that risk is
controlled. And that's why it has to be done. ...
CEO of the American Meat Institute
Part of the challenge is that there are only two technologies available today
that we know in the industry can guarantee that the ground beef is
pathogen-free, E. coli-free, bacteria-free. One is to cook the product. We sell
a lot of precooked ground beef out of our plants. But most of the ground beef
in America is cooked in restaurants or in our own kitchen. That is one
technology, one step that is available, sure-fire. ... The other technology would be irradiation. Some companies are irradiating raw
ground beef; some have yet to embrace the technology. Some consumers and
retailers -- and frankly, some beef companies -- are concerned about the market
response to that technology. But today there are only two steps or technologies
that we know will eliminate the E. coli in beef. And that's cooking it
properly when we handle the food; or irradiating it before we purchase the
Chief, food-borne and diarrheal diseases branch of the Centers for Disease Control
What do you do differently when you go to the grocery store to buy your
There are a number of things that the concerned consumer can do. One is to look
for evidence in a restaurant or a grocery store that the people who work there
have been trained in food safety. I'd rather buy my meat from people who
understand the basic principles of food safety. The meat I buy is probably no
different than the meat that lots of people buy. But I bag it separately, and I
handle it carefully, and I cook it thoroughly.
Do you cook your burgers really well done?
Yes, I do. And sometimes I even buy precooked burgers. We don't yet have
irradiated ground beef for sale in this part of the country, but it is for sale
in other parts of the country. If it were available, I would buy that.
You support the irradiation of meat?
I think irradiation of ground beef and of other high-risk meats is going to be
a really important public health tool, just like the pasteurization of milk has
been. The irradiation process that's used for meats does not induce any
radioactivity in the meat. It doesn't introduce any important changes in the
meat at all, except that it kills the bacteria that might be present. So I'm
not concerned about the safety of the meat after it's been irradiated.
Author, Fast Food Nation
I don't think there have been any large-scale epidemiological studies of people
eating irradiated meat over long, long periods of time. I hope irradiated meat
is safe, and it very well may be. But before you start irradiating the meat, I
think the meatpacking industry should be cleaning up its plants, because if you
just start irradiating the meat, you're allowing them to essentially irradiate
the feces on the meat.
So there's two questions. Firstly, should we be selling and buying irradiated
meat? I think that's up to the consumer, ultimately. But the second point is,
this irradiated meat should be clearly and unmistakably labeled as irradiated
meat. And the industry has tried very, very hard to avoid that and to come up
with all kinds of euphemisms for what's happening to the meat and what's in the
There are many companies right now that are producing very clean ground beef
without irradiation. And my fear about irradiation is it'll be a perfect excuse
for this industry not to clean up its act in the way that it really needs to.
... Right now, there are meatpacking companies who are doing a very good job at
producing clean meat. And there are companies that are doing a very bad job.
Irradiation levels the playing field. In a way, it punishes the companies who
are spending the extra money, doing the testing in order to do things right.
I think irradiation is a way for this industry not to be forced to clean up its
act. I don't think we should introduce something that helps the sloppiest
companies compete against the really good companies.
Because ultimately you're sanitizing fecal material?
Well, when you're irradiating meat, you're irradiating it and everything on it,
including the fecal material. I would prefer to have meat without fecal
material, as opposed to meat with irradiated fecal material. ...
The meat industry says that meat should not be labeled "irradiated," it
should be called "cold pasteurization." What does that mean? Why not
I think that they're trying to avoid revealing what's actually been done to the
meat. "Cold pasteurization" is a phrase that's been invented to cover up the
fact that this meat has been irradiated. And, I think much more important, is
if they're going to irradiate the meat, they should openly reveal that's what
they're doing to it so that consumers can decide if they want to eat it or
U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, 1995-2001
The industry says that what we need to be doing in terms of food safety is
that the consumer needs to be cooking the product better, and we also should be
using more irradiation. Do you think that that's an adequate response?
It's a part of a response, it's not a complete response. It reminds me, H. L.
Mencken once said, for every complicated problem, there is a simple and a wrong
solution. Well, washing your hands is great, it's important, and we could
eliminate a lot of food-borne illnesses if people washed their hands and cooked
their food better. Irradiation has a place, but it's certainly not an exclusive
way of making food safe. ... We've found that irradiation can in fact be a
positive factor in certain kinds of foods. It's quite expensive, some foods are
more suitable for it than others, [but] you can't have irradiation in every
food establishment in America. So it is no magic answer. It's not the cure-all,
[but] it's part of the answer. ...
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