November 13, 2009
It occurred to me while watching the American Meat Institute’s J. Patrick Boyle discuss the meat industry on CNN’s "Larry King Live" broadcast last month that no one, except Boyle himself, was willing to spell out the unvarnished truth about E. coli, the industry’s efforts to absolutely minimize the risks and the vital role consumers play in eliminating those risks. Rather than one of the victim’s family members or attorney Bill Marler making the point that the pathogen will always be a risk despite inspection practices and legislation designed to eliminate it, Boyle spelled it out: "I don’t know if we can actually eliminate it in a raw product," he said in response to King’s question about whether the industry can eradicate E. coli. "The incidence level is less than one-half of 1 percent of the beef products. So, it’s already extremely low. There are two steps available to eliminate E. coli in the ground beef supply: irradiation, which is not widely used, and through proper cooking of the product."
I was amazed at the number of responses to our online news report on Boyle’s appearance on the King show who were appalled that the AMI president would suggest consumers should have any role in the safety of t he food they prepare. They don’t want to accept what he stated on the air – that eliminating E. coli in raw, ground beef isn’t realistic.
Unlike Boyle, I have seen other guests sweat through grillings on the Larry King set, as the host and panelists have scrutinized airline safety and other consumer-safety issues in the past. I would guess if other industries could eliminate safety risks associated with their products both by incorporating an approved technology and then by allowing consumers to remove all doubt by following directions, they would jump at the prospect.
Few companies provide their customers with a product or service that is 100 percent risk-free. Whether the critics of the meat industry want to admit it or not, there are risks associated with practically any exchange of money for a company’s wares. Fortunately for the companies and their customers, there are other safeguards in place and technologies that may be utilized to protect against unforeseen problems. Short of that, there is a certain level of common sense that we, as consumers, parents, neighbors, etc…, should be held responsible for maintaining.
Why is it then that so many critics of the meat processing industry insist it is a bad thing to give consumers the last line of defense to not only prevent, but guarantee their fresh beef products are safe to eat by cooking them to 160°F? This assurance, for example is something the commercial airline industry can only dream of when it comes to minimizing risks associated with flying. Despite successful efforts to make airline travel as safe as possible, accidents have and will happen in the future. Beyond requiring passengers to use seat belts to minimize risk should an accident occur, there is no one step travelers can take to absolutely guarantee their safety. I’m quite sure airline safety engineers would dance on their drafting tables to have the meat industry’s safety assurance equivalent of consumers cooking product to 160°F if it guaranteed one of the most problematic safety risks could be eliminated. How can this last line of defense be anything but an enviable and positive opportunity?