In our top food safety news stories of 2010, number 5 was about the ordeal of a young woman and an E. coli-contaminated hamburger:
Outbreaks and their victims sometimes go away for a while, and then come back into the public arena with a vengeance. That’s what happened in 2010 when the Pulitzer Prize was awarded for the story of a paralyzed young dancer and the burger she had eaten three years earlier.
Stephanie Smith, who was a dance teacher in Cold Spring, MN in 2007, was just another E. coli O157:H7 victim, paralyzed from the waist down, when Michael Moss told her story in the New York Times on Oct. 3, 2009.
Until then, few outside her native state of Minnesota knew anything about what had happened to the young dancer three years earlier. Smith ate a burger from a box of “American Chef’s Selection Angus Beef Patties,” was infected with O157:H7; and developed a complication–hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS).
At St. Cloud Hospital and later the Mayo Clinic, the dancer who usually stuck to a vegetarian diet, was in a fight for her life. HUS, a damaging kidney disease, was sending the E. coli toxin through her colon wall. It was damaging blood vessels and causing seizure-producing clots.
Burgers, sold by Sam’s Club, turned out to be the source of that 2007 outbreak that infected 940 people, including Smith and 10 others in Minnesota. The supplier of that hamburger was Minneapolis-based Cargill’s, the nation’s largest private company.
But it was just another outbreak, and eventually just another recall of 844,812 pounds of hamburger in 2007, easy to forget in a year when 34 million pounds of beef was recalled.
Smith’s private medical battle did not get much public attention for a couple of years. She eventually returned home from the hospital to Cold Spring, but was still at risk of kidney failure and unable to walk, let alone dance.
“The Burger That Shattered Her Life” is the story that won the Pulitzer for Moss and the staff of the New York Times in 2010. It told Smith’s story and provided the details for how that life-changing hamburger was made.
“Ground beef is usually not simply a chunk of meat run through a grinder,” Moss wrote.
And while “American Chef’s Select” might sound special, the “grinding logs” Moss obtained showed that the burgers 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 New York Times reported the ingredients came from slaughterhouses in Nebraska, Texas, and Uruguay, as well as from a South Dakota company that processes fatty trimmings treated with ammonia to kill bacteria.
Cargill’s recipe for making hamburger was said to be a common cost-cutting measure for the industry, where grinders agree not to test beef trim they buy from multiple sources.
Stephanie Smith’s story got lots of attention after the New York Times report and again after the Pulitzer Prize was announced. Smith sued Cargill for at least $100 million in December 2009, and the parties agreed to settle in June 2010. The amount of the settlement was not disclosed.