Thursday, October 29, 2009

Ground beef food safety begins long before it reaches the frying pan

Recently, the New York Times published an article about a young woman who became paralyzed after eating ground beef tainted with a harmful strain of E. coli bacteria. The article attempted to trace the burger back to its source, and found that the seemingly straightforward ground beef patty was composed of meat from three states in the US and from Uruguay, and included an amalgam of fat trimmings, ground meat, and animals products treated with ammonia in an attempt to kill harmful bacteria.

The article focused on food safety inspections and the inability of the government to actually prevent tainted food from being sold.  One expert said that the usual guidelines for safe cooking and cleaning will not protect consumers if the meat is tainted with a harmful bacterial strain.

The USDA issued a response, outlining more safety measures and changes to cut down on food safety risks like E. coli.  

These safety efforts focus on what happens after cows are slaughtered.  But more effective food safety solutions could begin well before slaughter.

More than 10 years ago when I was an undergraduate at Cornell, my friend and classmate was involved in a study published in the journal Science on this topic.  The study showed that feeding cows grass for just a few days before slaughter would drastically reduce the amount of harmful E. coli that cows harbor, therefore reducing the chances that meat would become contaminated during processing.

On conventional feedlots, cattle are fed grain to increase their weight before slaughter.  But naturally, cows are suited to eat grass -- not grain.  Grain changes the acidity in cows' digestive tract, and harmful bacteria thrive in that environment.  A grass diet, on the other hand, maintains normal digestive processes where harmful bacteria can't survive.

Apparently, despite millions of pounds of recalled beef and a decade since the research was published, the industry is reluctant to adopt this simple safety measure.

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