No one wants to think about this stuff, so we generally don't. I don't want to think about it either.
But when you read a front page article called "The Burger That Shattered Her Life" in a venerable newspaper, and it uses terms like "E. coli," "convulsions," and "paralyzed," you think about it whether you want to or not. Sunday's New York Times article (apologies if you can't access) had, as its central thesis, these points: Eating ground beef is a gamble. And consumers have been misled about the process that gets it from the cows to our tables.
Highlights, or, really, low points, include these statements from the article:
- The country's largest private company, a major meat producer, made $116.6 billion in revenue last year. To make some of its frozen hamburgers, it mixes slaughterhouse trimmings, scraps, and "a mashlike product" from multiple U.S. states, and even foreign countries. So your patty may not have come from a single animal, or a single continent. Further, low-grade ingredients, the article states, "are cut from areas of the cow that are more likely to have had contact with feces, which carries E. coli, industry research shows."
- "Ground beef is not a completely safe product," says a food safety expert at the University of Minnesota.
- The potential for contamination at slaughterhouses is "present every step of the way" and "the cattle often arrive with smears of feedlot feces that harbor the E. coli pathogen."
- A food safety officer at a company that grinds 365 million pounds of hamburger a year said it "stopped testing trimmings [for E. coli] a decade ago because of resistance from slaughterhouses."
- An official with the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service "said the department could mandate testing [of ingredients before grinding], but it needed to consider the impact on companies as well as consumers." (True, testing requirements could unfairly burden small, and responsible, companies.) The USDA has therefore continued to permit companies to "devise their own safety programs."
I'm not going to tell you to stop eating mass-produced ground beef; you can make that choice for yourself. But I, as a consumer, now have to determine what my own personal choice will be, for myself and for my family.
I refuse to be the neurotic mom who bans the maraschino cherry from an occasional sundae. I refuse to make my kids crazy about whether their friends' parents serve them organic or conventional milk at playdates. And I refuse to let them worry about the sugary snack bar doled out after soccer. These things are not going to scar my children; my neuroses might.
So what does a responsible person, a responsible parent, do with information like that above? Ban hamburgers? Tell your kids they can't get a post-game burger at the Little League field? Become that parent -- the one who's so worried about nitrates or trans fats or E. coli -- that her kids are scared to put anything in their mouths unless mom is there to green-light it?
I make a concerted effort to keep these things out of my house, and I fight for better choices and healthier options and more transparency, but I do not want to become that parent. I do not want my children to be afraid.
And yet, after reading the ground beef expose, I've completely lost what little appetite I had for even the occasional frozen burger of unknown origin. But what do I do about the kids? How do I not make them crazy?