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Attack of the Killer Burgers: The Danger of Ground Beef

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Please welcome writer and New York Times refugee Regina Schrambling to the burgery dancefloor:

[Photo: ilovedrywell/Eater National Flickr Pool]

I like a great cheeseburger as much as anyone, especially with a hangover and a bloody Mary. But someone here has to bring up the elephant in the kitchen. For all the burger mania this week, the main ingredient is pretty dicey. Unless the cook can produce the papers for what’s between the buns, you’re gambling.

The pen wielder formerly known as Mr. Cutlets glosses over two reasons, E. coli and mad cow disease. Which are pretty lethal. But there’s also salmonella. And ammonia injected to clean up the crap. And just recently MRSA was found in beef. I thought you had to go to a hospital to get that.

Part of the problem is that it’s not ground beef. It’s ground beeves. A steak might be relatively safe. But grinding meat from molti animals exposes more surface area to contamination, as the reality-based food scientists note. The nasty bits mix and mingle and wreak who-knows-what havoc down the line. Some (like me) might categorize consuming most burgers as coprophagy. I know many kitchens grind their own, but one rule of prepping mass quantities is that shit happens.

Your one possible guarantee of clean, safe meat is certified organic or grass-fed. But how easy is that to find? For all the bowing and scraping before celebrity butchers, most ground beef still originates with feedlot operations where the animals are raised on the corn that leads to intestinal distress that leads to E. coli. It says everything that the Pat LaFrieda website has an apparel page up and running but shoots blanks when you go looking for sourcing of the product that helped make it logo-hyping famous.

And that’s at the high end of the burger chain. Imagine the fecal matter passing as Whoppers farther down. We all know the awful truth that cheap meat can’t come cheap; 99-cent burgers might buy you time in the ER. But even your $18 burger could be built on bacteria. There is just not enough quality beef available to feed seemingly insane demand. (When this sad trend of high-end burgers was taking off, I pitched a story on exactly that looming issue and the editor couldn’t understood what I was talking about. “Can’t the chefs just order more?”) Week after week there are mega-recalls of mega-tons of ground beef from multiple states infected with E. coli or salmonella. Much smarter reporters than I could ever hope to be have spelled it out repeatedly, and Eric Schlosser in Fast Food Nation certainly said it best: “There’s shit in the meat.”

The mystery is why everyone looks the other way. The founding fathers had no idea gray matter could ever be reduced to something on a bun. So how indoctrinated are we that gorging on burgers is now an American right? Does no one else follow Bill Marler on Twitter? Burgers can be meals of mass destruction. Yet those monstrous recalls of bun filler never make front-page news. We’re assaulted with “killer tomatoes” and “lethal spinach” in shrieking point size on all the tabloids while the bloody news is always buried back on A76. A friend calls this country the United States of Amnesia. She’s right, and Denial is bigger than Alaska.

I actually walked out of Food, Inc. — with its gruesome scenes of cow innards and sad tale of burger death — craving a cheeseburger. The message of that great movie was not to be scared but to be informed. Good luck with that. “Ground fresh and hand-formed daily” is no prophylactic, “natural” not much more.

Although in looking for disclosure at Shake Shack, I did get a soylent twinge. Its beef is “vegetarian-fed.” For once corn might be better.

—Regina Schrambling

· All Burger Week Coverage on Eater [-E-]

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