Hapless Meals

A few years ago, an old friend of my husband watched her three-year-old son die after eating a tainted hamburger at a fast-food chain in Oregon. She is a pediatrician, and her son had good care; but there was simply nothing anyone could do for him.

He was one of many Americans who become sick from what they eat. According to a 1999 study by the Centers for Disease Control, 200,000 people are sickened by food daily, 900 are hospitalized, and 14 die. That amounts to a quarter of the American population over a year's time. Most of these poisonings are not deadly, but there is enough E. coli 0157:H7 (the toxic strain responsible for the Jack in the Box deaths out West in 1993, among many others) floating around for concern.

The problem, simply put, is caused by manure in your meat, and I do mean yours: A 1996 USDA study found that over 78 percent of the ground beef sampled contained microbes that are spread generally by fecal material. Yet the U.S. government, which can recall consumer products ranging from toys to automobiles, does not have the legal power to recall tainted meat, or even to release information to the public about where that meat is being sold (unless under a brand name at a retail outlet, but not at a fast food restaurant). Nor can it impose punitive fines. The recalls you have heard about have been limited, voluntary, and often late, after much of the poisoned meat had already been consumed.


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