Sunday, October 4, 2009

Should You Ever Eat A Hamburger Again? Michael Moss, Who Wrote Today's NYT Blockbuster, Tells NYTPicker Decision Is "Very Personal."

All morning on Twitter, NYT readers mesmerized by today's page-one Michael Moss 4,870-word blockbuster about Stephanie Smith -- the 22-year-old dance instructor paralyzed from the waist down after eating an E. coli-laced hamburger -- have been saying the same thing: no more hamburgers for me!

"Scary. Don't think I'll be ordering a hamburger any time soon." -- Janice Jensen

"Did you read that story? Not that I make it a habit, but I don't see how I can ever feed my son a hamburger again." -- Seth Rogovoy.

"Long, but important story about E-Coli that will make me think twice about eating a hamburger." Joe Drape, NYT reporter.

But is that the appropriate reaction?

Moss's terrific story investigated the lax procedures at processing plants that led to Smith's condition, but it didn't answer the question of whether readers ought to stop eating hamburgers if they want to avoid the risk of E. coli infection. In the fifth paragraph, Moss writes that Smith's experience " shows why eating ground beef is still a gamble. Neither the system meant to make the meat safe, nor the meat itself, is what consumers have been led to believe."

But how much of a gamble is it, exactly?

We emailed Moss (a Pulitzer Prize finalist when he worked at the Wall Street Journal) this morning to ask him whether the takeaway from his story ought to be a decision to stop eating hamburgers. At first he replied that it was a tough question to answer because of "the lack of good data on what precicely the odds are of having 0157 in any one burger."

We pressed, and Moss has since sent us a more detailed response. While not definitive, we reprint it here for readers who may be wondering -- as we were -- just how risky it is to eat a hamburger, in light of his excellent reporting.

"Evaluating the risk of falling ill to E. coli in ground beef is extremely difficult," Moss told The NYTPicker. "There is very little sampling of retail product, and health data is quite weak too, so one cannot simply divide the number of illnesses each year into the number of eaten burgers. And if we did have a good number on risk, then any decision on dealing with that risk is very personal.

"I met meat scientists who will not touch packages of any meat in the grocery store, but rather use plastic bags from the produce section as gloves. They also use bleach to clean their own kitchens after cooking. I also met a senior USDA official who will only eat burgers well done, but his wife insists on eating hers rare. We are running a video on Monday on our cooking test, in which we managed to spread a nonharmful strain of E. coli in my kitchen despite following the safety instructions.

"Whatever the precise risk, I think the question the reporting sought to answer was whether all is being done that could be done to reduce the risk."

Hmmm. Just to be safe, we're going to stick with steak.


Anonymous said...

And if you really want to mess up your head, go talk to the probiotic people who think that we NEED extra live bacteria from our food. They think too much disinfectant hurts our immune system and leaves us vulnerable to the first bug that happens to sneak through. I also have no clue. And is it really the job of a reporter to make critical decisions about iffy things? Sure, I would feel fine if he said definitively, "Don't walk in front of the bus while it's moving." But for all we know that woman's immune system was decimated by some other disease and then she ate the burger. Causality is really, really tricky here.

Girl said...

Or else get your beef from Whole Foods where they're constantly grinding it fresh throughout the day, or a butcher shop. Although there will still be a risk, it will obviously be much smaller than buying beef from a grocery store that comes from several different processing plants. One package of ground beef sold at regular grocery stores can contain beef from several different cows, including some from out of this country. Yuck.

Trevor Butterworth said...

This is why modified atmosphere packaging with CO2 is a significant development in food safety, as it can significantly retard the growth of E. coli bacterium in ground beef in meat stored above the recommended temperature. Unfortunately, many in the media decided that MAP was "artifically coloring" meat to disguise its lack of freshness - largely due to political pressure and lobbying efforts by a company with a rival process to have Safeway abandon the procedure. I interviewed most of the top food experts in the country on this issue, and their response was unanimous: map was a real advance in food safety...