Studies show that more than 70,000 Americans become sick each year due to E. coli bacterial infections. Most of these infections come from contaminated beef made into the most “American” of foods, the hamburger. Of the 70,000 infected, about 2,000 are sick enough to be hospitalized and in some extreme cases, victims become paralyzed or die; death happens in about 60 patients annually. Although the government does post regulations in order to keep the contamination at a minimum, many feel this is not enough; even the best precautions can only do so much. In a recent survey conducted by the Centers for Disease Control, for example, the E. coli bacteria contaminated one of every 200 samples of ground beef.
While companies and government inspectors backstop safety procedures by testing sample meat products for E. coli contamination, a procedure that usually takes at least a couple of days to show results, there are still problems. The first is that companies do not want testing conducted unless they do it themselves. According to a recent article published in the New York Times, many meat producers will not sell to processing companies who test the meat upon the delivery’s arrival, before it is mixed with meat from other companies. Producers are worried a positive E. coli test would force them to recall their entire product, including the meat they sold to other processors. Instead, meat companies require the processors only test the finished hamburger so if there is a contamination, it is impossible to trace it back to a single slaughterhouse. The second problem is that it is physically unfeasible and economically unrealistic to test every ounce of meat; it takes only a little E. coli bacteria to make someone sick. Only irradiation, in which meat is treated with a low dose of radiation, kills all of the bacteria. Though this process is deemed safe and effective, public speculation has helped prevent its spread. Many believe the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) should help to change people’s minds about irradiation in order to ensure the process is more widely used.
Because the producers, processors and government cannot guarantee the safety of meat, they ask consumers to cook it to 160 degrees to kill most of the bacteria.