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In a Perfect World: Making Hamburger Safe

        “Oh, Jake,” Brett said, “we could have had such a … damned good time together.”

Ahead was a mounted policeman in khaki directing traffic. He raised his baton. The car slowed suddenly pressing Brett against me.

“Yes,” I said. “Isn’t it pretty to think so?”

–last lines of “The Sun Also Rises,” by Ernest Hemingway


Although for those preferring to believe in the romance of it all–that is, those taking the stated view of Lady Brett Ashley, I have always loved the entirely non-ironic summing-up of things delivered by Jake Barnes in the last line of the novel, “The Sun Also Rises:”  Isn’t it pretty to think so?   In six simple words, Jake shrugs away the empty, calculated optimism that is the necessary ingredient, the sine qua non, of all those who feign to see world as it perhaps should be, instead of how it is.  Isn’t it pretty to think that the world could be perfect, and that anything we can imagine can indeed be. 

Jake Barnes’s pithy indictment of self-serving wishful-thinking came to mind when I read a press release from the National Meat Association (NMA), a leading trade association representing the interests of the meat industry.  In the press release, the NMA calls attention to a National Academies National Research Council report titled, “An Evaluation of the Food Safety Requirements of the Federal Purchase Ground Beef Program,”  which was released Dec. 9, 2010.  In its press release, the NMA emphasizes one main point, stating as follows:


In its assessment, the Research Council concluded that validated cooking processes provide greater assurance of ground beef’s safety than would additional testing for pathogens.  


The Research Council also recommended that AMS assess the usefulness of its microbiological data as a scientific basis for testing for indicators and base its requirements on standards supported by the International Commission on Microbiological Safety of Foods, the Codex Alimentarius Commission, and the Research Council itself.


National Meat Association supports the concept that safety requirements should be strengthened using scientific methods.  Through scientifically sound production practices and by ensuring meat is properly cooked before it is served, we can better prevent future illnesses.

  (Emphases mine. For a somewhat more balanced take on the report, see Bryan Salvage, “More stringent testing doesn’t equal safer meat: study,” Dec. 9, 2010 on the Meat & Poultry website.)


Of course, the take-home message from this report, as far as the meat industry is concerned, is that stricter testing cannot guarantee safe meat, but “validated cooking processes” can provide such a guarantee.  (Circular logic alert!)  In other words, a process that finds and identifies the presence of pathogens in large quantities of ground beef cannot guarantee that the meat is safe to eat as compared to a process that has the potential to eliminate pathogens from ground beef, if the process is done correctly.  Did they really need to hire scientists to come to this conclusion?  Seems obvious to me.

What is not obvious, however, is why no one thought to ask the question of whether stricter testing would create an incentive for meat companies to manufacture ground beef that did not contain pathogens in the first place.  As the USDA has (in one of its  occasional moments of lucid objectivity) stated more than once before:


Several industry commentators stated that consumers should assume more responsibility for their safety and expressed the need for consumer awareness programs regarding the importance of cooking beef products thoroughly.

Industry can reduce or eliminate risk associated with [E. coli] O157:H7 through various controls and interventions . . . that can be incorporated into HACCP systems.  Because industry has the means to reduce or eliminate the hazard, consumers should not be expected to assume all the responsibility for preventing foodborne illness associated with [E. coli] O157:H7.*


The USDA has also admitted that if the “presence [of E. coli O157:H7] can be prevented, no amount of temperature abuse, mishandling, or undercooking can lead to foodborne illness.” (See HACCP Final Rule, 62 Fed. Reg. at 38,962.)


But, to the meat industry, it is beyond heretical to suggest that pathogens need not make it into meat in the first place.  Instead, the meat industry’s mantra has long been, and still remains, that the only real solution to making meat safe to eat is proper cooking. That is why the meat industry has, as predictably as the sun rising in the morning, leapt at and embraced with such fervor the seeming conclusion of the just-released report on the USDA’s ground beef purchase program for school lunches.  In doing so, however, the meat industry yet again defiantly ignores the obvious.  Although the meat industry can reasonably be expected to prevent meat from being contaminated as part of the manufacturing process, the average consumer cannot be expected to make contaminated ground beef safe to eat in each and every instance of cooking.  Indeed, one of the leading experts on behalf of the meat industry has conceded as much, saying:

It is not realistic to expect that all consumers will apply perfect cooking methods when preparing frozen ground beef patties. The risk of E. coli contamination in these products has to be reduced upstream.


But perfection is nonetheless what the meat industry expects of consumers, all the while insisting that perfection is an irresponsible standard to apply to the meat industry.  That is why the NMA’s press release called to mind Lady Brett Ashley for me.  Like Lady Ashley, the meat industry prefers to dream of a perfect world that does not, and cannot, exist, rather than to face the reality of making hard and difficult decisions in the real world, decisions that would force a confrontation with the less pretty things of life.


In a perfect world, every driver would unceasingly use the utmost care and no automobile accidents would occur.  In a perfect world, every sidewalk would be quickly shoveled of snow and ice, and the folks who run the local grocery store would make sure there was nothing on the floor that would make someone slip and fall.  In a perfect world, every machine would work precisely as designed, planes would not crash, and poisons would stay out of the hands of small children.  Indeed, in a perfect world, accidental injuries would not occur because accidents would not happen.  Alas, we do not live in such a perfect world.  But try telling that to the NMA.


*See “Recent Developments Regarding Beef Products Contaminated With Escherichia coli O157:H7,” 65 Fed. Reg. 6881, 6884 (announcing that the agency would hold a public meeting “to discuss FSIS’ policy re
garding [E. coli] O157:H7 and new information concerning the pathogen and its relation to human health.”)

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