CHURCHVILLE, VA—In the old days, we cooked hamburgers rare, juicy and flavorful. In recent years, because of E. coli 0157:H7, we’ve had to content ourselves with hamburgers that were gray and dry or run the risk of serious illness. E. coli 0157:H7 is the relatively new and vicious “Jack-in-the-Box” bacteria that killed four kids in Seattle in 1993. It was seen first by researchers in the 1980s. Since then, it has killed hundreds and sickened thousands more with bloody diarrhea, severe abdominal cramps, and even liver failure.
The “toxic foods” have included hamburgers, spinach, radishes, lettuce, and apple juice, to name a few. Studies have shown that there is no farm or farming system that can avoid harboring these bacteria or the other persistent food-borne bacteria such as salmonella and listeria.
E. coli 0157 was basically the reason Congress recently passed a costly new food safety bill that will sharply increase both food inspections and food costs. Unfortunately, the inspections won’t make us much safer, because the 0157 bacterium is very hard to find. Often, inspectors examine the remainder of food batches that have caused illness and, even knowing what they are looking for, can’t find any 0157.
We should instead be focusing on prevention. And now we can, thanks to a new patent-pending process from Cargill, the big agribusiness company. Cargill will almost literally squeeze the harmful bacteria to death. If you squeeze a grape between two fingers, the grape will rupture. If you put a grape in a plastic bottle, cap it, and squeeze the bottle, you can apply enormous amounts of pressure without rupturing the grape. In essence, that’s the new Cargill pressure treatment process.
Dr. Michael Doyle, a top food safety expert at the University of Georgia, tells me the bacteria’s cells are rendered harmless by the pressure. It is already being used widely by Hormel in their luncheon meats and by all the makers of commercial avocado dip.
The process is especially well-adapted for hamburger, and Cargill now has Food and Drug approval to market pressure-processed burgers. Put under 63,000 pounds of pressure, the cell walls of any bacteria in the hamburger will rupture—whether they be E.coli, salmonella, listeria or just food spoilers. The pressurized food will, therefore, taste fresher as well as being far safer.
Remembering the food scares of the past, Cargill is starting its marketing with the food service industry. You won’t be able to buy the Fressure® burgers in the supermarket until they’ve established a reputation for both flavor and safety in restaurants, cafeterias, and Rotary meetings.
However, more restaurants will serve fresh burgers instead of frozen—which consumers say they prefer. Until now, the costs of storing fresh hamburger meat were high, mainly because of spoilage bacteria—with off-flavor too often threatening the restaurant’s reputation.
Thank you, Cargill, for the service you are about perform for this rare-in-the-middle burger lover. I will welcome it in the restaurants, and will wait impatiently to buy it in the supermarket for my own grill.
Actually, of course, we’ve had a potential solution to E. coli 0157 for decades—irradiating the hamburger with low levels of gamma rays. The gamma rays kill 99.9 percent of the bacteria, without making the food radioactive. Thus, it could be kept fresh through the delivery chain and in your refrigerator. The food scare industry had a ball with the idea of “irradiated food” even though it was approved by food safety experts all over the world.
Then the experts found they could also kill the food-borne bacteria by zapping them with electrons—“electronic pasteurization.” But the public hasn’t shown any more interest in electronic pasteurization than it did in irradiation.
I predict the third time will be the charm—though I can’t wait to see the arguments the professional scare folks will raise about the new process. Rest assured they will attack it because eliminating the food-borne bacteria would radically reduce a major set of food scares. True public health advocates should recognize it as a leap forward in food safety, much as pasteurized milk halted tuberculosis and undulant fever.