The Year in Science: Medicine 1997

Where's the Beef?

By Patricia Gadsby|Thursday, January 01, 1998
Twenty-five million pounds of hamburger is a whopping amount of meat. Picture a quarter-pound patty and multiply the image by 100 million. Or picture 50,000 cattle on the hoof. That’s a lot of cow, and it gives you an idea of the scope of the recall grimly undertaken by Hudson Foods—under heavy duress from the U.S. Department of Agriculture—last August in the wake of cases involving a harmful strain of E. coli (photo).

All together, 15 nonfatal but nasty cases of poisoning by E. coli O157:H7 were reported from June to August, all in Colorado. The problem was linked to hamburger produced in June in a Nebraska plant owned by Hudson Foods. In the fallout from the recall, Hudson lost its largest hamburger buyer, Burger King, sold off the Nebraska meat plant, and was ultimately bought by Tyson Foods, the poultry producer.

Why did the recall have to be so huge? The most likely source of the toxic bacteria was one of the ten slaughterhouses that supplied the Hudson plant—and unfortunately, Hudson routinely mixed ground beef from many suppliers into the same processing batch, and even from one day’s batch into the next. It isn’t clear whether this practice violated meat safety regulations. What is clear, though, was that Hudson couldn’t produce records showing when the contamination had stopped. Hence the 25-million-pound recall.

Only 8 million pounds of meat was actually recovered. Most of the remaining 17 million pounds was probably eaten or thrown away, says Becky Triplett, a Hudson spokesperson. Since no other illnesses linked to the Hudson recall were reported, most of the hamburger consumed was either not tainted, or scarcely contaminated, or cooked hot enough (160 degrees Fahrenheit) to kill the bacteria.

The recovered meat was put into two refrigerated warehouses in Arkansas while the investigation continued—and while Hudson tried to figure out what to do with it. One solution: Thoroughly cook the meat to debug it and use it to top foods like pizza and tacos. That was reasonable enough from a scientific standpoint but not from a public relations perspective. Reports in September that Hudson might even consider this option—tainted beef may be for dinner screamed one headline—were instantly denied by the company. In theory, bombarding the beef with radiation could have made it safe, but meat irradiation—another tough sell to some sectors of the public—has yet to be approved by the Food and Drug Administration.

Rendering is the recalled beef’s most likely fate. Usually the process entails cooking meat at 272 degrees to separate the fats for potential use in soaps and cosmetics and to salvage the protein for animal feed. According to Hudson, however, its rendering practices convert all the material to animal and pet feed. Alternatively, the beef could simply be treated as garbage—incinerated or dumped into a landfill. As of early November the decision hadn’t been made.

Ironically, the USDA recently launched a gleaning initiative to recover leftover food from farms, restaurants, and food suppliers. The aim is to feed the nearly 12 million Americans who may face food insecurity this year, as Dan Glickman, the secretary of agriculture, wrote in a letter to the New York Times. That letter was dated September 28, about a month after Glickman ordered the most gargantuan food recall in history. Even within the usda’s own ranks, some people have thought the politically unthinkable. From a humanitarian point of view, said one scientist, it’s too bad we couldn’t cook or irradiate the beef and send it to people who need it.
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