Facts matter: Sign up for the free Mother Jones Daily newsletter. Support our nonprofit reporting. Subscribe to our print magazine.

Over the weekend the New York Times ran a long story about E. coli poisoning in the hamburger industry.  I could swear I’ve read nearly this exact same story three or four times before and it never seems to prompt any actual changes in the meatgrinding industry, but maybe this time we’ll get lucky.  For Saturday’s story, the Times tracked down the infected hamburger that paralyzed Stephanie Smith two years ago, and what they discovered was that meat grinders don’t test the various ingredients that go into making hamburger.  They only test the final product:

When it came to E. coli O157:H7, Cargill did not screen the ingredients and only tested once the grinding was done. The potential pitfall of this practice surfaced just weeks before Ms. Smith’s patty was made. A company spot check in May 2007 found E. coli in finished hamburger, which Cargill disclosed to investigators in the wake of the October outbreak. But Cargill told them it could not determine which supplier had shipped the tainted meat since the ingredients had already been mixed together.

“Our finished ground products typically contain raw materials from numerous suppliers,” Dr. Angela Siemens, the technical services vice president for Cargill’s meat division, wrote to the U.S.D.A. “Consequently, it is not possible to implicate a specific supplier without first observing a pattern of potential contamination.”

Did Cargill do this to save money?  Only partly.  Primarily it’s because if they test, they might actually find something:

The retail giant Costco is one of the few big producers that tests trimmings for E. coli before grinding….Costco said it had found E. coli in foreign and domestic beef trimmings and pressured suppliers to fix the problem. But even Costco, with its huge buying power, said it had met resistance from some big slaughterhouses. “Tyson will not supply us,” Mr. Wilson said. “They don’t want us to test.

….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.”

The USDA has since issued guidelines “urging” grinders to test ingredients, but that’s it.  They don’t require it.  Surely a Democratic administration and a Democratic Congress, not ideologically opposed to safety regulations, can do better than that?

THE END...

of our annual funding cycle is fast approaching, on June 30, and we have a considerable $230,000-plus gap in our online fundraising budget.

If you value the nonprofit journalism you get from Mother Jones, and you can, right now is an important time to help us keep charging hard with a much-needed and much-appreciated donation.

payment methods

THE END...

of our annual funding cycle is fast approaching, on June 30, and we have a considerable $230,000-plus gap in our online fundraising budget.

If you value the nonprofit journalism you get from Mother Jones, and you can, right now is an important time to help us keep charging hard with a much-needed and much-appreciated donation.

payment methods

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our free newsletter

Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate