He said, she said: USA Today on E. coli in ground beef

Today’s USA Today offered up its point-counter-point editorial space this morning to the persistent problem of dangerous E. coli in ground beef.

From the newspaper:

Too many Americans get sick and too many die from eating that most all-American of foods, the hamburger. …

The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which has seemed confused as to whether its job is to protect consumers or producers, urges testing by hamburger makers and could require it. But it has not done so, apparently because of industry resistance. It should.

A second problem is that it’s physically impossible and economically unrealistic to test every bit of meat. … Though numerous studies have shown that irradiation is safe and effective, public suspicion has helped prevent its spread. USDA, which has approved irradiation, needs to counter the myths and campaign for its wider use.

Because producers and the USDA admit that they can’t guarantee germ-free meat, they urge consumers to handle ground beef carefully and cook it to 160 degrees, which kills most bacteria. That should be a last line of defense, not a primary one. You shouldn’t be taking your life in your hands if the bun holds an undercooked burger.

From the government, U.S. secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack:

The following are just a few key steps USDA has taken recently:

— Launched an initiative to cut down E. coli contamination, including stepped up meat facility inspections to involve greater use of sampling to monitor the productsgoing into ground beef.

— Appointed a chief medical officer within USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service to coordinate human health issues within USDA and build bridges with the public health community and senior leaders throughout the federal, state and local sectors to establish a consistent approach and heighten food safety awareness.

— Issued consolidated, more effective field instructions on how to inspect for E. coli O157:H7 contamination.

— Started testing additional components of ground beef, including bench trim, and issued new instructions to our employees asking that they verify that plants follow sanitary practices in processing beef carcasses.

Protecting public health is the sole mission of USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, and we will not rest until we have eliminated food-borne illnesses, hospitalizations and deaths.

If only foodborne illness was as cute as a Kevin Bacon and Elizabeth Perkins movie.