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RSS By: Steve Cornett, Beef Today

Read the latest blog from Steve Cornett.

Put E. coli Risk in Perspective

Jun 13, 2011

eat like a manWithout having read this book "Eat like a Man"  let me suggest it looks like one we need to read. For a couple of reasons: I like the cover - it shows real meat with all that sizzle.

Second, it reminds us of beef’s appeal and why we need to endeavor to keep things like the latest E. coli scare in perspective. People like beef. Normal people, anyhow. They eat it if they can. The only way you can keep them from doing that is charge too much or scare them.

We’re going to have to do the former if we’re ever going to rebuild our herds. But the latter is optional.

I must exercise caution here. I don’t want to appear to be one of those guys who likes fecal bacteria. I don’t. I’m actually against it. But all things in moderation, you know.

As I’ve argued before, beef can’t be too safe, but it can be too expensive. As you know, the Europeans—with all their food safety rules and regulations—had a nasty bout of E. coli recently.  It appears the final vector was bean sprouts, but there is no lack of folks willing to blame cows.

They might be right of course. Cow manure is nasty stuff you don’t want on your bean sprouts. But that is actually true of about every kind of poop I can think of.

But again, perspective. My perspective is, basically, we need to do all we can reasonably do to maximize the safety of beef. But I include the word “reasonably.” Not everybody uses that word.

The idea of poop in the meat is such an attention grabber.

So catchy that the Village Voice was able to paraphrase the American Meat Institute’s caution about new regulations thus: AMI “wants us to eat (fecal material) and die."

Of course that’s wrong. AMI wants us to eat fecal material and survive. Which we have done, by the way, almost every day of our lives. You can’t keep fecal material out of naturally-grown foods. Look in the back of a wheat truck sometimes.

But that doesn’t make it sound good, and E. coli has some awful press. It is to food borne illness what AIDS is to general illness -- an ink magnet. Evidence: When the CDC last week presented the results of its annual foodborne illness surveys, what I saw was that there were more cases, hospitalizations and deaths from campylobacter and salmonella than from E. coli.

Listeria and vibrio both caused more deaths than E. coli.

Moreover, E. coli 0157 was the only pathogen on the list that fell within the objectives established as the national goals.

But the lead on the New York Times story the next day? “Federal officials said on Tuesday that a national monitoring system for food-borne illness detected an increasing number of sicknesses last year from a group of rare E. coli bacteria related to the little-known and highly toxic strain that has been ravaging Germany.”

Read on, however, or look at the report yourself, and you find the CDC said it found more of the non-0157 bacteria because of “increased surveillance.” Again, I’m not arguing in favor of feeding people fecal material. Just looking for  perspective.

So let me link you to a few perspectives I found online:  First, from Mark Bittman at the New York Times. Mr. Bittman has become a leading opponent of meat. He regards producers as inhumane. He thinks they are major polluters. He thinks, in general, that we could do without meat, and he has started looking for excuses to scare his readers away from it. That leads him, in this post, to offer this bit of scare mongering: “One hundred thousand E. coli can dance on the head of a pin; it may only take 50 to make you sick enough to die.”

Which, of course, explains the fact that E. coli is a leading cause of death in the U.S. Oh, wait. It’s not. It’s just a leading cause of headlines. Actually, that CDC report found a total of 3 E. coli-related deaths. Too many, agreed, but hardly the worst health threat in the country.

Which is not, again, to suggest I’m somehow in favor of food poisoning. I, in fact, agree with Mr. Bittman’s later suggestion that any form of E. coli should be treated like the worst form of E. coli. It all comes from the same material. If you find one kind—while it might be as harmless as a fly boiled in your soup or a rat pellet baked in your bread—it’s an indication there was fecal contamination.

I vote against fecal contamination. I vote packers find more ways to avoid it and/or clean up any live bacteria it might leave on my meat. Meat can be too expensive. But that much we can afford. I will agree with the American Meat Institute that testing for non-lethal pathogens is an unnecessary expense. But much of marketing expense is “unnecessary.” But it helps you sell the product, so you include the unnecessary expense in your markup.

Back to perspective. For a less frightening take, read Richard Levick’s take in Forbes. He points out that meat producers, processors and marketers have a vested interest in keeping their product safe. They—helped by beef checkoff funds—have poured  millions into beef safety in the last few years. Their efforts are paying off. That’s why the Centers for Disease control surveys find fewer and fewer e. coli problems.

I prefer Josh Ozersky’s take in Time, in which he worried about too much food safety concern ruining his hamburger.

I don’t much share his worry about using generic hamburger meat, mind you. As I consider the odds of dying from eating an E. coli infested hamburger or winning the lottery, I figure I’ve got more important things to worry about.

But I do worry about his point about the reaction to the threat itself: “It's not just the actual burgers they infect, it's the response they provoke, which ruins so many innocent, untainted ones.”

Maybe it’s just me, but I’d about as soon eat a chicken sandwich as a well done burger. And I have no use for a well-done steak. They don’t taste as good as the rare stuff. People who demand their meat well done don’t eat as much of it. Ask the people in the pork industry, who for years warned people to overcook their product.

We need two things here. One is for our processors to keep the manure out of beef so people don’t feel the need to overcook. And we need for people—and reporters—to keep the risk in proper perspective.

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