ON JAN. 22, 1993, a 2-year-old from Tacoma died at Children's Hospital. Cause of death: heart failure due to kidney disease brought on by infection with a virulent strain of the omnipresent intestinal bacterium Escherichia coli strain O157.
So began the Jack in the Box hamburger food-poisoning scandal, which before it faded had sickened over 600 people and killed four, all young children. The tragedy precipitated the first significant revisions in public-health practices regarding food safety since the era of Teddy Roosevelt.
But in a way the scandal has never entirely faded, because since 1993, epidemics of food poisoning traced to E. coli contamination have occurred with increasing frequency and breadth all over the developed world: 10,000 in a single outbreak in Japan in 1996, 500 the next year in Scotland, and so on till the present.
And though federal and state governments are now better prepared to spot and take action against epidemics of food-borne disease than they were in 1993, their ability to prevent such catastrophes has been steadily eroded. In the opinion of may public-health officials, the American food supply is more seriously at risk today than it was in Roosevelt's time.
Many reporters have documented this threat and how it came about. It was a central theme of Eric Schlosser's best seller Fast Food Nation. This week PBS' Frontline presents a documentary called Modern Meat by writer-director Doug Hamilton, which zeros in on the reason that America's meat supply is less safe than it was 100 years ago and why there is good reason to think the situation will get worse still (KCTS-9 9 p.m. Thurs., April 18 and 1 a.m. Mon., April 22).
The argument of the Frontline report can be summed up by a few of the facts and statistics it presents:
* Beef cattle are fattened for market in feedlots, where they eat, drink, and sleep in the brown sea of their own feces.
* To promote rapid growth and to combat the spread of disease, which such crowding encourages, feedlot operators administer huge amounts of antibiotics with their animals' food—about half the antibiotics manufactured in this country.
* Cattle are slaughtered and their meat is shipped from gigantic central facilities owned by four companies, which provide 84 percent of the nation's beef supply.
* By the time the cuts suitable for fast-food hamburger patties are ground and processed, meat from a hundred or more animals will be blended in each batch.
Feces, as a microbiologist quoted in the show remarks, is "mostly bacteria." In a feedlot, bacteria from any given animal are going to come in contact with a great many other animals, providing them with the equivalent of a living petri dish to breed and evolve in. If an antibiotic-resistant strain develops in any given animal, it's quickly transmitted to others, and the homogenization resulting from multiton-batch hamburger making ensures, in turn, that meat from an infected animal may be distributed across half the country before anybody discovers the problem.
In theory, federal regulations governing food safety have been mightily tightened since the Jack in the Box epidemic. In practice, it hasn't worked out that way. Department of Agriculture (USDA) inspectors have the right to inspect and test meat for food-borne pathogens, but the department can't demand recall of a shipment when contamination is discovered. Just last December, a U.S. federal court ruled that the USDA has no authority to close a meat-packing plant, no matter how much contaminated meat is found there.
Thanks to Schlosser, most attentive American consumers know the conditions under which all fast-food and much supermarket meat is produced; this Frontline broadcast may persuade a substantially greater number to think more carefully about what they put in their mouths. But many Americans, perhaps the majority, have no choice. Fast-food and supermarket hamburger are the only high-grade protein they have access to or can afford. As for their children: Schlosser points out in the show that Supreme Beef, the company that successfully sued to avoid USDA sanctions despite repeated citations for contamination, provides nearly half the beef for the federally subsidized National School Lunch Program.
And far worse problems are looming on the horizon. Modern Meat cites numerous cases of contaminated meat joining the U.S. hamburger pipeline from Mexico and other countries without proper labeling or certification. So far, it's only contributed familiar hazards like salmonella and E. coli. But there are more insidious threats: above all, the neurodegenerative disease bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), which is thought to have infected hundreds of beef-eating Europeans before anyone suspected it could leap the barrier between species.
So far as anyone knows, United States cattle are still free of BSE infection. In January, with remarkable lack of fanfare, the General Accounting Office (GAO) published a study in response to the U.S. Congress' question: Will this country avoid the BSE plague ravaging much of the rest of the world? The GAO looked into agricultural inspection programs, border health checks, and import controls before submitting its 63-page report, but its answer can be summed up in two words: Fat chance.
So, is our choice to turn vegetarian or die drooling and brain rotted? For the urbanized, Web-equipped minority at least, there's a tasty alternative. See "Meat: The Good News."
Abundant support material for Frontline's "Modern Meat" will be posted at the program's airtime or shortly before at http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/meat/
The GAO report on BSE in the US food supply is at www.gao.gov/new.items/d02183.pdf
Roger Downey's science column appears every other week.