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The New York Times has a lengthy article which begins with the story of Stephanie Smith, who became paralyzed after contracting a deadly E. coli O157:H7 infection, and continues by detailing the flaws in the way ground beef is processed which allows contaminants to spread.

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 this pathogen, federal health officials estimate, with hamburger being the biggest culprit. Ground beef has been blamed for 16 outbreaks in the last three years alone, including the one that left Ms. Smith paralyzed from the waist down. This summer, contamination led to the recall of beef from nearly 3,000 grocers in 41 states.

Since meat preparation is supposed to be under the supervision of federal food safety inspectors, where are the potential sources of contamination?

Federal inspectors based at the plant are supposed to monitor the hide removal, but much can go wrong. Workers slicing away the hide can inadvertently spread feces to the meat, and large clamps that hold the hide during processing sometimes slip and smear the meat with feces, the workers and inspectors say.

Greater Omaha vacuums and washes carcasses with hot water and lactic acid before sending them to the cutting floor. But these safeguards are not foolproof.

“As the trimmings are going down the processing line into combos or boxes, no one is inspecting every single piece,” said one federal inspector who monitored Greater Omaha and requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly.

The E. coli risk is also present at the gutting station, where intestines are removed, the inspector said

Every five seconds or so, half of a carcass moves into the meat-cutting side of the slaughterhouse, where trimmers said they could keep up with the flow unless they spot any remaining feces.“We would step in and stop the line, and do whatever you do to take it off,” said Esley Adams, a former supervisor who said he was fired this summer after 16 years following a dispute over sick leave. “But that doesn’t mean everything was caught.”

Another problem is that processors do not want to get the individual slaughterhouses in trouble, or they will lose them as a supplier.

The food safety officer at American Foodservice, which grinds 365 million pounds of hamburger a year, said it stopped testing trimmings a decade ago because of resistance from slaughterhouses. “They would not sell to us,” said Timothy P. Biela, the officer. “If I test and it’s positive, I put them in a regulatory situation. One, I have to tell the government, and two, the government will trace it back to them. So we don’t do that.”

Although some processors may not be carrying out enough inspections, the problem is really that the final ground product is what gets inspected in most cases, not the batch of trimmings coming in from any particular supplier. Meat from different suppliers are mixed together. A contaminated batch of ground beef can therefore be traced to a processor, but not to a specific supplier.

The sad part of this whole tale is the conclusion presented by the New York Times reporter:

Dr. Petersen, the U.S.D.A. official, said the department had adopted additional procedures, including enhanced testing at slaughterhouses implicated in outbreaks and better training for investigators.

“We are not standing still when it comes to E. coli,” Dr. Petersen said.

The department has held a series of meetings since the recent outbreaks, soliciting ideas from all quarters. Dr. Samadpour, the laboratory owner, has said that “we can make hamburger safe,” but that in addition to enhanced testing, it will take an aggressive use of measures like meat rinses and safety audits by qualified experts.

At these sessions, Felicia Nestor, a senior policy analyst with the consumer group Food and Water Watch, has urged the government to redouble its effort to track outbreaks back to slaughterhouses. “They are the source of the problem,” Ms. Nestor said.

We find it curious that a major newspaper can publish a lengthy story which is clearly the result of careful research and somehow come to a conclusion which is exactly the same as it would be if Food and Water Watch wrote the entire article. Please note that no other possible solutions to the problems are written about in the article.

As we have previously revealed, the best kind of advocacy pieces masquerading as journalism or science do not commit crimes of commission, rather, they simply omit pertinent data which the average, non-expert reader would otherwise be unaware of.

In this particular case, there are two simple answers which can deal with the problems posed by the article simply and effectively without the need for more government regulation, inspectors, and taxes.

The first answer comes from Reason:

What solution? Irradiation. That is, treating foods with gamma, electron beam or X-ray radiation to kill bacteria that might be found on food before it is offered to the consumer. It is no more dangerous than pasteurization of milk and would prevent tens of thousands of food poisoning episodes if widely adopted.

According to research by the CDC, irradiation works and is safe:

Treating raw meat and poultry with irradiation at the slaughter plant could eliminate bacteria commonly found raw meat and raw poultry, such as E. coli O157:H7, Salmonella, and Campylobacter. These organisms currently cause millions of infections and thousands of hospitalizations in the United States every year. Raw meat irradiation could also eliminate Toxoplasma organisms, which can be responsible for severe eye and congenital infections. Irradiating prepared ready-to-eat meats like hot dogs and deli meats, could eliminate the risk of Listeria from such foods. Irradiation could also eliminate bacteria like Shigella and Salmonella from fresh produce. The potential benefit is also great for those dry foods that might be stored for long times and transported over great distances, such as spices and grains. Animal feeds are often contaminated with bacteria like Salmonella. Irradiation of animal feeds could prevent the spread of Salmonella and other pathogens to livestock through feeds.

Reason’s conclusion is markedly different than the one reached by the New York Times:

Why should Americans be forced to trust their health chiefly to the good will of politically well-connected corporations and a bunch of bureaucrats when applying a simple elegant inexpensive technnology can go a long way toward solving the problem?

The second solution is: get to know your butcher. Go and visit a local butcher shop that makes their ground beef on the spot. It will cost more than the premade patties you can find in major supermarkets because it is made fresh on the spot with higher quality ingredients. As we have found, making friends with the butcher can also help you snag really high quality cuts of meat which are rarely available outside of high end steakhouses.

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