The NYT's Instant Weight Loss Plan: Michael Moss's E. Coli Report

Michael Moss's story on how e.coli in a burger paralyzed a Minnesota woman is changing lunch plans all across the nation and may signal a change in meat inspection procedures. But how big is the problem really?

If you're looking to become an instant vegan or get a head start on a weight-loss program, by all means check out Michael Moss's front page story from Monday, "The Burger Than Shattered Her Life - Trail of E. Coli Shows Flaws in Ground Beef Inspection System."

Stephanie Smith of Minnesota became violently ill in 2007 after eating a hamburger infected with e. coli. She remains paralyzed with nerve damage and may not walk again.

Moss impressively traced a frozen hamburger patty from the slaughterhouse to Smith's plate - though you might want to wait until after lunch to read the details.

It's a heart-breaking and hugely popular article, currently standing #2 on the Times most emailed list, trailing in popularity only a column by Paul Krugman lambasting a "ruthless" Republican Party led by "radicals." It also pointed up some apparent gaps in the regulation system.

But it is a single tragic situation, not a nationwide trend. And it sounds like Minnesota officials acted quickly.

Moss piled on the melodrama in a story that didn't need any, saying "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." Is there some conspiracy afoot against burger eaters?

Stephanie Smith, a children's dance instructor, thought she had a stomach virus. The aches and cramping were tolerable that first day, and she finished her classes.

Then her diarrhea turned bloody. Her kidneys shut down. Seizures knocked her unconscious. The convulsions grew so relentless that doctors had to put her in a coma for nine weeks. When she emerged, she could no longer walk. The affliction had ravaged her nervous system and left her paralyzed.

Ms. Smith, 22, was found to have a severe form of food-borne illness caused by E. coli, which Minnesota officials traced to the hamburger that her mother had grilled for their Sunday dinner in early fall 2007.

"I ask myself every day, 'Why me?' and 'Why from a hamburger?'"Ms. Smith said. In the simplest terms, she ran out of luck in a food-safety game of chance whose rules and risks are not widely known.

Meat companies and grocers have been barred from selling ground beef tainted by the virulent strain of E. coli known as O157:H7 since 1994, after an outbreak at Jack in the Box restaurants left four children dead. Yet tens of thousands of people are still sickened annually by this pathogen, federal health officials estimate, with hamburger being the biggest culprit. Ground beef has been blamed for 16 outbreaks in the last three years alone, including the one that left Ms. Smith paralyzed from the waist down. This summer, contamination led to the recall of beef from nearly 3,000 grocers in 41 states.

Ms. Smith's reaction to the virulent strain of E. coli was extreme, but tracing the story of her burger, through interviews and government and corporate records obtained by The New York Times, 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.

Ground beef is usually not simply a chunk of meat run through a grinder. Instead, records and interviews show, a single portion of hamburger meat is often an amalgam of various grades of meat from different parts of cows and even from different slaughterhouses. These cuts of meat are particularly vulnerable to E. coli contamination, food experts and officials say. Despite this, there is no federal requirement for grinders to test their ingredients for the pathogen.

Smith's case was more severe because the toxin penetrated the colon wall, damaging blood vessels and causing clots.

State officials reacted quickly:

Dr. Kirk Smith, who runs the state's food-borne illness outbreak group and is not related to Ms. Smith, was quick to finger the source. A 4-year-old had fallen ill three weeks earlier, followed by her year-old brother and two more children, state records show. Like Ms. Smith, the others had eaten Cargill patties bought at Sam's Club, a division of Wal-Mart.

Moreover, the state officials discovered that the hamburgers were made on the same day, Aug. 16, 2007, shortly before noon. The time stamp on the Smiths' box of patties was 11:58.

On Friday, Oct. 5, 2007, a Minnesota Health Department warning led local news broadcasts. "We didn't want people grilling these things over the weekend," Dr. Smith said. "I'm positive we prevented illnesses. People sent us dozens of cartons with patties left. It was pretty contaminated stuff."

Eventually, health officials tied 11 cases of illness in Minnesota to the Cargill outbreak, and altogether, federal health officials estimate that the outbreak sickened 940 people. Four of the 11 Minnesota victims developed hemolytic uremic syndrome - an usually high rate of serious complications.

Near the end, Moss noted the possibility of consumer fault:

In the wake of the outbreak, the U.S.D.A. reminded consumers on its Web site that hamburgers had to be cooked to 160 degrees to be sure any E. coli is killed and urged them to use a thermometer to check the temperature. This reinforced Sharon Smith's concern that she had sickened her daughter by not cooking the hamburger thoroughly.

But the pathogen is so powerful that her illness could have started with just a few cells left on a counter. "In a warm kitchen, E. coli cells will double every 45 minutes," said Dr. Mansour Samadpour, a microbiologist who runs IEH Laboratories in Seattle, one of the meat industry's largest testing firms.

One omission: Moss's story contained nothing on irradiation, a proven method of killing the e. coli microbe. Yet the technology has been hobbled by anti-scientific liberal paranoia over anything nuclear, as noted by letter writer Larry Katzenstein, who used to write for Conusmer Reports Magazine (3rd letter from the top):

Your otherwise impressive article did not mention irradiation, the only reliable method of eliminating E. coli O157:H7 and other disease-causing microbes from raw meat and poultry. The Food and Drug Administration approved irradiation as safe and effective for use on poultry in 1992 and on meat in 1997. But for more than 20 years, consumer groups led by Public Citizen have worked to scare the public about food irradiation and threatened to boycott companies that market irradiated products.

In 2001, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that irradiating half the meat and poultry consumed in the United States would mean 900,000 fewer cases of food-borne illness and 350 fewer deaths each year. Unfortunately, irradiated meat and poultry can't be found on store shelves. For that you can blame a cowardly food industry and a cynical consumer movement, willing to sacrifice lives to further its antinuclear agenda.

The Times itself came out for food irradiation in an August 2008 editorial on zapping salad leaves:

Consumers often cringe at the very mention of radiation, but the technology is a safe way to eliminate the threat posed by E. coli, salmonella and listeria in the food supply.

On the other hand, food reporter Marian Burros warned readers off irradiation against e. coli in an October 2003 story:

The government has said that irradiation is a responsible way to prevent contamination by E. coli 0157:H7, listeria and other dangerous bacteria. But critics have said that not enough studies have been done to prove irradiated beef's safety; that in fact some studies have shown that it may promote cancer and that it should not be given to children until the concerns are met.