Yesterday, the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service issued a largely useless, but still widely published, news release entitled “Independence Day: Drills for the Grill.” See News Release, www.fsis.usda.gov/News_&_Events/NR_062909_01/index.asp While notable for a cheery and reassuring tone, the information provided is, at best, unhelpful, and, at worst, is dangerously misleading. In addition to providing little in the way of substantive food safety information about how to “safely” grill a burger, the FSIS news release deceitfully soft-pedals the real risks posed by ground beef, generally, and outdoor grilling in particular. For example, the new release clumps together hamburgers, steak, chicken, hot dogs, and ribs as if all can be treated in the same way, and pose the same relative risk—which is blatantly false. And also, how can anyone at FSIS expect to educate the public about safely grilling ground beef (the real risk here) without once mentioning E. coli O157:H7, the primary risk?
Take, for example, the introductory quote from FSIS Administrator, Alfred V. Almanza, who states: “Safe food handling is always important, but during the warm summer months — peak grilling season — there is an increased need for awareness of safe food handling practices.” Well, Mr. Almanza, why is that? Could it be because numerous research studies have shown that the incidence of E. coli O157:H7 in cattle rises significantly during the spring, and peaks during the summer months? See, e.g., Edrington, et al, 2006. Seasonal shedding of Escherichia coli O157:H7 in ruminants: a new hypothesis. Foodborne Pathog Dis 3:413-21; Hancock, et al., 1994. The prevalence of Escherichia coli O157.H7 in dairy and beef cattle in Washington State. Epidemiol Infect 113:199-207; Hancock, et al., 1997. A longitudinal study of Escherichia coli O157 in fourteen cattle herds. Epidemiol Infect 118:193-5; and Hussein, et al., 2005. Prevalence of Shiga toxin-producing Escherichia coli in beef cattle. J Food Prot 68:2224-41. Why not level with the public and tell them that ground beef simply tends to be more dangerous in the summer, and that is when a higher than average percentage of E. coli O157:H7 infections occur? Of course, that might make the USDA look bad, and could further depress the sales of ground beef.
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