Along with ketchup, pickles, and buns, backyard barbecuers should be armed
with something else this grilling season: a meat thermometer. Experts say it's
the only sure way to prevent a potential food poisoning disaster.
"The only safe hamburger is one cooked to 160 degrees," says Nancy
Donley, president of the nonprofit Safe Tables Our Priority, a food-safety
advocacy group. "Research has shown color is not a reliable
Donley learned about food safety in the hardest way possible. Seven years
ago, her son Alex ate a contaminated hamburger and died. He was just 6. "I
didn't have a clue -- I really didn't -- that food could be a carrier of
bacteria," she says.
What killed Alex was infection with the bacterium E. coli. It can
cause a severe complication called hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS).
"HUS can come from other causes, but 75% of it is related to food
poisoning; most of it to [E. coli]," says Edward Traceman, MD, who
treated Alex Donley. "The problem isn't the bacteria itself, but the toxin
released by the bacteria."
Traceman says HUS causes one main symptom in the body -- blood clots -- that
leads to numerous complications, such as kidney failure. "You don't use
antibiotics to treat it. What you try to do is clean the toxin from the body,
by washing the blood, basically .... You try to weather the storm."
In fact, a study by researchers at the University of Washington School of
Medicine in Seattle indicated that, in children infected with E. coli,
antibiotics could actually bring on HUS.
Most patients shake off E. coli poisoning within six weeks, Traceman
says, but about 5% never do.
What worries Donley is that the E. coli situation may not have
improved much, despite a number of well-publicized cases, including a 1993
outbreak linked to undercooked burgers from Jack in the Box restaurants and a
spate of 1996 cases linked to Odwalla brand fruit juice.
The good news is that cases of food-borne bacterial illnesses have dropped
23% since 1996, according to the CDC. The four major bacterial food-borne
illnesses -- campylobacter, salmonella, listeria, and E. coli -- dropped
21% in the past six years. Campylobacter infections dropped 27%, infections
from listeria fell 35%, and salmonella infections decreased by 15%. E.
coli infections dropped 21%, but all of that decline occurred since
Donley says that about half the cattle that come in for slaughter have some
exposure to E. coli, and that ground meat samples tested by the federal
government are turning up higher amounts of bacteria than before -- although
this may be because of better testing.
"The slaughterhouse market is relatively unchanged since Sinclair Lewis
wrote The Jungle," says Bill Marler, a Seattle attorney who has
represented victims of some of the most notorious food poisoning cases of the
last decade, including the Jack in the Box and Odwalla cases. He holds this
opinion despite the fact that some plants have adopted new Hazard Analysis
Critical Control Point (HACCP) quality-control procedures to keep contamination