Eat Burgers And Die?
Stephanie Smith was in a coma for nine weeks after being infected with E. coli.
Then her diarrhea turned bloody. Her kidneys shut down. Seizures knocked her unconscious. The convulsions grew so relentless that doctors had to put her in a coma for nine weeks. When she emerged, she could no longer walk. The affliction had ravaged her nervous system and left her paralyzed.
Ms. Smith, 22, was found to have a severe form of food-borne illness caused by E. coli, which Minnesota officials traced to the hamburger that her mother had grilled for their Sunday dinner in early fall 2007.
"I ask myself every day, 'Why me?' and 'Why from a hamburger?' "Ms. Smith said. In the simplest terms, she ran out of luck in a food-safety game of chance whose rules and risks are not widely known.
Meat companies and grocers have been barred from selling ground beef tainted by the virulent strain of E. coli known as O157:H7 since 1994, after an outbreak at Jack in the Box restaurants left four children dead. Yet tens of thousands of people are still sickened annually by this pathogen, federal health officials estimate, with hamburger being the biggest culprit. Ground beef has been blamed for 16 outbreaks in the last three years alone, including the one that left Ms. Smith paralyzed from the waist down. This summer, contamination led to the recall of beef from nearly 3,000 grocers in 41 states.
Ms. Smith's reaction to the virulent strain of E. coli was extreme, but tracing the story of her burger, through interviews and government and corporate records obtained by The New York Times, shows why eating ground beef is still a gamble. Neither the system meant to make the meat safe, nor the meat itself, is what consumers have been led to believe.
The frozen hamburgers that the Smiths ate, which were made by the food giant Cargill, were labeled "American Chef's Selection Angus Beef Patties." Yet confidential grinding logs and other Cargill records show that the hamburgers were made from a mix of slaughterhouse trimmings and a mash-like product derived from scraps that were ground together at a plant in Wisconsin. The ingredients came from slaughterhouses in Nebraska, Texas and Uruguay, and from a South Dakota company that processes fatty trimmings and treats them with ammonia to kill bacteria...Those low-grade ingredients are cut from areas of the cow that are more likely to have had contact with feces, which carries E. coli, industry research shows. Yet Cargill, like most meat companies, relies on its suppliers to check for the bacteria and does its own testing only after the ingredients are ground together.
Unwritten agreements between some companies appear to stand in the way of ingredient testing. Many big slaughterhouses will sell only to grinders who agree not to test their shipments for E. coli, according to officials at two large grinding companies. Slaughterhouses fear that one grinder's discovery of E. coli will set off a recall of ingredients they sold to others.
Cargill, whose $116.6 billion in revenues last year made it the country's largest private company, declined requests to interview company officials or visit its facilities. "Cargill is not in a position to answer your specific questions, other than to state that we are committed to continuous improvement in the area of food safety," the company said, citing continuing litigation.
The meat industry treats much of its practices and the ingredients in ground beef as trade secrets...Federal records released by the department through the Freedom of Information Act blacked out details of Cargill's grinding operation that could be learned only through copies of the documents obtained from other sources.
In the weeks before Ms. Smith's patty was made, federal inspectors had repeatedly found that Cargill was violating its own safety procedures in handling ground beef, but they imposed no fines or sanctions, records show. After the outbreak, the department threatened to withhold the seal of approval that declares "U.S. Inspected and Passed by the Department of Agriculture." In the end, though, the agency accepted Cargill's proposal to increase its scrutiny of suppliers...
Cargill bought these trimmings -- fatty edges sliced from better cuts of meat -- from Greater Omaha Packing, where some 2,600 cattle are slaughtered daily and processed in a plant the size of four football fields. Ms. Smith's burger also contained trimmings from a slaughterhouse in Uruguay, where government officials insist that they have never found E. coli O157:H7 in meat. Yet audits of Uruguay's meat operations conducted by the U.S.D.A. have found sanitation problems, including improper testing for the pathogen...
With seven million pounds produced each week, the company's product is widely used in hamburger meat sold by grocers and fast-food restaurants and served in the federal school lunch program...
The retail giant Costco is one of the few big producers that tests trimmings for E. coli before grinding, a practice it adopted after a New York woman was sickened in 1998 by its hamburger meat, prompting a recall. Craig Wilson, Costco's food safety director, said the company decided it could not rely on its suppliers alone...Costco said it had found E. coli in foreign and domestic beef trimmings and pressured suppliers to fix the problem. But even Costco, with its huge buying power, said it had met resistance from some big slaughterhouses. "Tyson will not supply us," Mr. Wilson said. "They don't want us to test."
A Tyson spokesman, Gary Mickelson, would not respond to Costco's accusation, but said, "We do not and cannot" prohibit grinders from testing ingredients. He added that since Tyson tests samples of its trimmings, "we don't believe secondary testing by grinders is a necessity."
The food safety officer at American Foodservice, which grinds 365 million pounds of hamburger a year, said it stopped testing trimmings a decade ago because of resistance from slaughterhouses. "They would not sell to us," said Timothy P. Biela, the officer. "If I test and it's positive, I put them in a regulatory situation. One, I have to tell the government, and two, the government will trace it back to them. So we don't do that."
The U.S.D.A. found that Cargill had not followed its own safety program for controlling E. coli. For example, Cargill was supposed to obtain a certificate from each supplier showing that their tests had found no E. coli. But Cargill did not have a certificate for the Uruguayan trimmings used on the day it made the burgers that sickened Ms. Smith and others.