Source: ABC-NEWS 20/20 Transcript #1538; Date: 9/22/95; “Always, Always Well Done” Author: Reported by Arnold Diaz
SYNOPSIS: Most Americans first became familiar with E. coil several years ago when four children died from eating hamburgers at Jack In the Box restaurants. What millions of people don’t know is that there have been dozens of outbreaks since then and many hundreds of people have died. The problem has not been resolved, but rather has worsened.
E. coli 0157H7 has now become so widespread it is being called an epidemic. Official estimates reveal that E. coli is killing as many as 500 people a year and causing another 20,000 people to become sick.
The deadly E. coli, first discovered in hamburger in 1982, has increased significantly over the past decade. It’s found in the intestines and feces of some cattle and is sometimes accidentally transferred onto the meat during the slaughtering process. With steaks and roasts, E. coli isn’t considered much of a problem because it lies on the surface and is easily killed during cooking. But when the meat is ground up, the bacteria on the surface can get mixed into the middle of the hamburger where it’s much harder to cook out.
E. coli is not in every hamburger, but it could be in any hamburger. With an estimated one out of every 1,000 hamburgers containing this organism, this should be a matter of concern for most Americans. Americans eat more than 20 billion hamburgers a year, so millions of raw hamburgers may be contaminated. Consumers can protect themselves from deadly situations by making certain that their hamburgers are always cooked welldone. Experts say that if the middle of a hamburger reaches 155 degrees Fahrenheit, the E. coli will be killed. The government and the meat industry are trying to get the word out on some ways individuals can protect themselves, but given the continuing growth of the epidemic, they haven’t been too successful so far.
According to American Meat Institute scientist Janet Collins Williams, the industry has tried to reach the public through brochures they’ve sent to grocery stores and by applying safe handling labels now required on all meat packages. However, others believe that more attention-grabbing labels and detailed information should be used and that the United States Department of Agriculture inspection practices should be tightened.
Meanwhile, since the prevalence of E. coli is increasing, the media should make the public aware that there is an epidemic underway and that one of America’s favorite foods-hamburgers-can kill them.
While the source of this story is a television news magazine, researchers found little follow-up in the print media.
SSU Censored Researcher: Marcie Goyer
COMMENTS: Despite the alarming “20/20” report on September 22 that E. coli kills as many as 500 people a year and that the prevalence of the virulent bacterium is increasing, a news database search revealed no press reports of such an epidemic by the end of the year. Among the E. coli stories cited, two reported an E. coli epidemic in Russia; one was a general overview on infectious diseases, including E. coli; a Los Angeles Times article featured a viral epidemiologist who tracked diseases, including E. coli, for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC); a USA Today item in a news round-up noted a warning to boil water in a Wilmington, Delaware, neighborhood, where E. coli had been found; and a series of Kansas City Star articles reporting nine persons had been stricken by E. coli bacteria in Kansas.
During the same period of time, the Federal News Service reported statements by two medical scientists warning of the dangers of virulent bacterium including E. coli. And a trade magazine, Food Chemical News, reported on September 25, that Dr. Anne Schuchat, a medical epidemiologist at CDC, said, “it looks like there’s an epidemic” of E. coli 0157H7 infections because reporting has been mandated in most states and health departments recognize the importance of alerting public officials to an outbreak. Finally, on January 7, 1996, USA Weekend noted there were 1,420 cases of E. coli bacteria infections reported by the Centers for Disease Control in 1994.
There were no news reports that either supported the “20/20” report or challenged it. If 500 Americans were dying annually from E. coli and the disease is spreading, this surely would seem to warrant more press attention. “20/20” representatives declined to respond to our questionnaire attempting to followup on this story.