In spite of meat recalls, scientific advances and stepped up plant inspections, the federal government cannot ensure Americans’ food is free of dangerous bacteria. And experts say it probably will never be able to.
Scientists cannot keep up with the disease-causing toxin that killed three Oregon toddlers in 1993 and sickened at least 15 Coloradans this summer. The toxin is carried by the common E. coli bacterium, which seems to be developing new forms faster than scientists can develop tests to trace them or treatments to stop them.
The toxin surfaced in ground meat again this summer and is at least 10 times more potent than other common food-borne diseases. A tiny amount can cause a nasty bout of intestinal illness - as well as kidney failure, brain damage and even death in about one out of every 4,000 people stricken.
So the bottom line for shoppers remains the same as it was in Roman times: Caveat emptor. Buyer, beware.
“People are getting a false sense of security,” said epidemiologist Paul Mead of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “They believe the government will take care of them and secure a perfectly safe food supply. In fact, the government can’t do that.
Consumers have to play an active role in protecting themselves.”
Under pressure from Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman, one meat packing plant took steps this week to recall suspect frozen hamburger patties and overhaul its procedures.
But scientists at the CDC say none of this will get at the source of the problem: meat already tainted before it reached the plant with a strain of E. coli, named 0157:H7.
And that strain is only one of E. coli’s potentially dangerous forms.
Scientists did not know that in 1982, when they began work on tests that can quickly identify E. coli 0157:H7 in people and in food. About a year ago, they succeeded. New tests, not yet widely used in industry, can spot the strain in about eight hours, said researcher David Atcheson of Tufts University-New England Medical Center.
The scientists were fast, but the disease was faster, Atcheson said. He and others have identified about 60 more varieties of E. coli the new tests won’t find, and they too carry the lethal agent, known as Shiga toxin.
Named nearly 100 years ago by a Japanese physician, Shiga toxin mysteriously attacks the cell walls of the intestine and, in severe cases, the kidney and brain. It’s the cause of several different intestinal diseases, including dysentery epidemics in Africa and Asia. In the past two years, it has caused outbreaks in Australia, Japan, Great Britain and the United States, using a variety of E. coli strains as its host.
Because tiny quantities can bring on illness, even the available tests don’t do that much good. Atcheson and his colleagues bought 32 1-pound packages of hamburger from local grocery stores, then tested the lower left corner of each one. They found Shiga toxin in five packages - but when they retested other parts of those same one-pound packages, some portions tested clean.
“Just a tiny sample is enough to make you sick,” Atcheson said. “So, can you test ground beef to a point where you can be entirely sure it was safe? In my opinion, no - not now, and probably not any time in the foreseeable future. Safe handling and cooking, that’s where the buck stops.”
In the case of meat that’s pretty easy to do, health officials say. Cooking tainted meat to 160 degrees Fahrenheit kills the toxin. But uncooked foods like lettuce, juice, cider, alfalfa sprouts and radish sprouts have also caused disease outbreaks, and scientists aren’t so sure how to prevent those illnesses.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture and the CDC recommend washing all produce in cold water and regular soap, Mead said, but there’s no research proving that helps.
Home gardeners should take care not to spread raw manure on their crops, Mead said. Manure that’s been well-heated during the composting process is safe - but composted manure isn’t tested for bacteria, either, so even that is a bit of a gamble.
About half of this country’s 10,000 cases per year of E. coli-related illness come from ground beef, the health experts say. That’s because the animal feces that spread the disease are found on the surface of the meat, and grinding the meat spreads the contamination.
Some new processing methods, such as steam cleaning the meat as it is butchered, can help stop the spread of contamination. But not all companies use these techniques, and there’s no way for shoppers to know which ones do and which ones don’t. And there’s no evidence that meat or poultry labeled “organic,” “free range” or “minimally processed” is any less likely to be tainted, Mead said.
“We recommend that you treat all meat as though it were contaminated,” he said.
That means frequent hand washing and keeping raw meat and meat juices away from other foods, even storing them on separate plates. It’s safe to serve whole cuts of meat, such as steaks and roasts, rare or medium-rare because heat kills the surface bacteria.
But take care to turn the meat with tongs, not a fork. If you pierce the surface before the outside is cooked, “you’re introducing contamination into the middle of the meat where the heat can’t reach it,” Atcheson said.
Ground beef should always be cooked until it’s well-done. For those who insist on eating their burgers rare, food scientist Barbara Klein of the University of Illinois-Urbana has this suggestion: Buy a steak. Rinse it well. Run your food processor through your dishwasher to heat-sterilize it. Grind up the steak. Make your burgers, serve them and eat them immediately.
And accept that you’re taking a chance. “You’re always going to have micro organisms in there,” Klein said. “Meat is not going to be sterile unless you cook to death.”