Inside the Fast-Food Scandal That Changed How Beef Is Regulated

May 11, 2015
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by Patrice Taddonio Assistant Director of Audience Development

An inspector examines fresh beef sides for potential contaminants or health issues before the meat is cooled for 42 hours at a Cargill meat packing plant in Fort Morgan, Colo., Nov. 10, 2009. Cargill is participating in trials of a cattle vaccine against e-coli, a pathogen that does not harm cattle but can be dangerous to human health. (Kevin Moloney/The New York Times) ( Kevin Moloney / The New York Times)

More than 20 years ago, four children were killed in an outbreak of E. coli O157 — a dangerous strain of bacteria that was linked back to undercooked hamburgers from Jack in the Box fast food restaurants.

The regulatory changes sparked by those four deaths — and the more than 700 people who also fell ill — are the subject of Chasing Outbreaks, a new episode of Retro Report that’s now streaming on The New York Times’ website (and that you can also watch at the end of this post).

As Chasing Outbreaks recounts, after the Jack in the Box deaths, the U.S. Department of Agriculture took the unprecedented step of setting a zero-tolerance policy for E. coli O157 in raw ground beef, declaring it an “adulterant.”

But regulators have not taken such decisive action with certain dangerous kinds of salmonella — and FRONTLINE explores the reasons why in tomorrow night’s new documentary, The Trouble with Chicken.

The film looks closely at the largest salmonella poultry outbreak on record, when chicken from Foster Farms — the biggest poultry producer on the West Coast — sickened more than 600 people over 16 months.

Before you watch FRONTLINE’s examination of the threat from salmonella tomorrow night, get the backstory on America’s complex food safety system in Chasing Outbreaks:

 

The Trouble with Chicken premieres Tuesday, May 12 at 10 p.m. EST on PBS and online. Check your local listings here.

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