Ground Beef And The Hamburger: How Safe Is It?
Of all the food safety concerns raised by the discovery of mad cow disease at a Washington state dairy,
perhaps none is more focused than that on ground beef and the staple of the American diet
-- the hamburger.
Meat from one dairy cow infected with the disease was distributed in eight western states and the US
territory of Guam, and consumers in those regions who ate the meat said they did so in the form of
The meat from one tainted cow ends up so widespread because the ground beef shaped into patties for
the fry pan is likely to be meat combined from several animals, a recipe that increases the
odds that the
meat is contaminated.
In addition, ground beef can come from many parts of the same cow, and some parts are said to be safer
than others. The cow's nervous system harbours the disease, although some food safety officials have
assured consumers that the American meat-processing system keeps brains and spinal cords out of the
meat that is slaughtered.
Unlike some other food-related contamination, such as e-coli, mad cow disease is not affected by
cooking, so a very rare hamburger or a well-cooked one presents the same risk. Irradiation also has no effect
on the disease, so beef that has been treated in that manner also offers no guarantee. Is there a way to keep
the juicy hamburger on the table or should consumers stay off hamburgers for a while?
In October 2002, the US Department of Agriculture instituted an organic labelling system so consumers
choosing organic products could know that the food had been produced without pesticides, hormones,
antibiotics, irradiation or bio-engineering. These standards apply to imported foods as well. The strict
certification process and ongoing inspections of organic farms make it less likely that meat products from
such farms are contaminated by mad cow disease. An animal becomes infected with mad cow disease if it
eats contaminated feed - most likely feed that include the brain and spinal cord tissue.
To be certified organic, cattle must be given a vegetarian diet of grass. Grain such as corn, barley and
soy beans are fed for a short period of time to produce added fat. Growth hormones and antibiotics are not
added to feed. On the other hand, on a conventional cattle farm, cattle feed can include cattle blood, gelatine, fat or tallow, and milk protein.
Knowing when and from where an animal came from in time of crisis is important. On organic farms,
the tracking of each animal from birth or source of purchase is
mandatory. There must be records of health
care and any treatments the animal receives. Annual inspections are also made at feed mills, farms and
With all these requirements, organic beef therefore, comes with a hefty price. It sells more than twice
the price of traditional beef. "Every time there is a food disaster either in the form of e-coli or engineered
corn, there is a bump in sales for organic beef," said an organic farmer. "When there is a food disaster, then
everyone wants to know where our food comes from."
Some experts are outraged by the US government's slowness in dealing with the mad cow concerns that
they feel consumers should avoid ground beef completely. Said a spokesman, "Consumers have to protect
themselves because consumers simply have no idea where the ground beef in their supermarket comes
from." According to one study, a single pound of ground beef was traced to 400 animals in six states.
Yet there are people who feel that the industry should not be punished for something that happened to
one cow. Others say that avoiding ground meat completely is an over-reaction. They feel that the chance of
being infected is very small.