Tainted burger shatters woman's life
Stephanie Smith, 22, was diagnosed in fall 2007 with a severe form of food-borne illness caused by E. coli, which Minnesota officials traced to hamburger her mother had grilled for Sunday dinner.
The New York Times
Stephanie Smith, a children's dance instructor, thought she had a stomach virus. The aches and cramping were tolerable the first day, and she finished her classes.
Then her diarrhea turned bloody. Her kidneys shut down. Seizures knocked her unconscious. The convulsions grew so relentless that doctors 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.
Smith, 22, was diagnosed in fall 2007 with a severe form of food-borne illness caused by E. coli, which Minnesota officials traced to hamburger her mother had grilled for Sunday dinner.
"I ask myself every day, 'Why me?' and 'Why from a hamburger?' " 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 the pathogen, health officials estimate, with hamburger being the biggest culprit.
Sixteen outbreaks have been blamed on ground beef in the past three years, including the one that left Smith paralyzed from the waist down. This past summer, contamination led to the recall of beef from nearly 3,000 grocers in 41 states.
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, shows why eating ground beef is still a gamble. Neither the system meant to make the meat safe, nor the meat itself, are what consumers have been led to believe.
Ground beef is usually not simply a chunk of meat run through a grinder. Instead, records and interviews show, a single portion of hamburger meat is often an amalgam of various grades of meat from different parts of cows and even from different slaughterhouses. These cuts of meat are particularly vulnerable to E. coli contamination, food experts say. Even so, there is no federal requirement for grinders to test their ingredients for the pathogen.
The frozen hamburgers the Smiths ate were made by Cargill and labeled "American Chef's Selection Angus Beef Patties." Yet confidential grinding logs and other Cargill records show the hamburgers were made from a mix of slaughterhouse trimmings and a mashlike product derived from scraps 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.
Using a combination of sources — as do most large producers of fresh and packaged hamburger — allowed Cargill to spend about 25 percent less than it would have for cuts of whole meat.
Those low-grade ingredients are cut from areas of the cow more likely to have had contact with feces, which carry 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.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), which allows grinders to devise their own safety plans, has encouraged them to test ingredients first as a way of increasing the chance of finding contamination.
"Ground beef is not a completely safe product," said Dr. Jeffrey Bender, a food-safety expert at the University of Minnesota who helped develop systems for tracing E. coli contamination. He said that while outbreaks had been on the decline, "unfortunately it looks like we are going a bit in the opposite direction."
Food scientists worried
Food scientists have registered increasing concern about the virulence of this pathogen because only a few stray cells can make someone sick. They warn that recommendations to cook meat thoroughly and to wash up afterward are not enough to prevent the bacteria from spreading in the kitchen.
Cargill, whose $116.6 billion in revenues last year made it the country's largest private company, declined requests for interviews and visits to 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.
Within weeks of the Cargill outbreak in 2007, USDA officials conducted spot checks at 224 U.S. meat plants to assess efforts to combat E. coli. Inspectors had been monitoring these plants all along, but officials found serious problems at 55 that were failing to follow their own safety plans.
"Every time we look, we find out that things are not what we hoped they would be," said Loren Lange, an executive associate in the Agriculture Department's food-safety division.
Testing has been a point of contention since the 1994 ban on selling ground beef contaminated with E. coli O157:H7 was imposed. The department moved to require some bacterial testing of ground beef, but the industry argued the cost would unfairly burden small producers, industry officials said.
The Agriculture Department opted to carry out its own tests for E. coli, but it acknowledges that its 15,000 spot checks a year at thousands of meat plants and groceries nationwide are not meant to be comprehensive. Many slaughterhouses and processors have voluntarily adopted testing regimes, yet they vary greatly in scope from plant to plant.
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 ground beef, causing a recall.
Craig Wilson, Costco's food-safety director, said the company decided it could not rely on its suppliers alone. "It's incumbent upon us," he said. "If you say, 'Craig, this is what we've done,' I should be able to go, 'Cool, I believe you.' But I'm going to check."
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," 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 surge in outbreaks since 2007 has led to finger-pointing within the industry.
Dennis Johnson, a lobbyist for the largest meat processors, has said not all slaughterhouses are looking hard enough for contamination. He told USDA officials last fall that those with aggressive testing programs typically find E. coli in up to 1 to 2 percent of their trimmings, yet some slaughterhouses implicated in outbreaks had failed to find any.
An Agriculture Department survey of more than 2,000 plants taken after the Cargill outbreak showed that half of the grinders did not test their finished ground beef for E. coli; only 6 percent said they tested incoming ingredients at least four times a year.
Guideline draws fire
In August 2008, the USDA issued a draft guideline again urging, but not ordering, processors to test ingredients before grinding. "Optimally, every production lot should be sampled and tested before leaving the supplier and again before use at the receiver," the draft guideline said.
But the department received critical comments on the guideline, which has not been made official. Industry officials said the cost of testing could unfairly burden small processors and that slaughterhouses already test.
Dr. Kenneth Petersen, an assistant USDA administrator, said the department could mandate testing, but it needed to consider the impact on companies and consumers. "I have to look at the entire industry, not just what is best for public health," Petersen said.
Smith, meanwhile, is living at her mother's home in Cold Spring, Minn. She spends a lot of her time in physical therapy, which is being paid for by Cargill in anticipation of a legal claim, according to William Marler, a lawyer in Seattle who is handling the claims against Cargill.
Smith's kidneys are at high risk of failure. She is struggling to regain some basic life skills and deal with the anger that sometimes envelops her. Despite her determination, doctors say, she will most likely never walk again.
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