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Cliffs Notes to the Times’ E. Coli Investigation

By Hannah Wallace | The Faster Times

Maybe you’re a busy working mother who has no time for depressing 5,000 word articles, no matter how keen your interest in food safety. Maybe you purposefully avoided the article because you don’t want to be a vegetarian and you know the vivid descriptions of industrial slaughterhouses in this country will make your stomach roil, forcing you to question the origin of every hamburger you ever eat at a restaurant (or buy at a grocery store) ever again.

Neither of these things are true of me, but it still took me a few days to work up the gumption to read journalist Michael Moss’ cover story (published in the New York Times last Sunday), a relentless investigation into the 2007 E. coli outbreak in Minnesota. Traced to Cargill’s “American Chef’s Selection Angus Beef Patties,” the virulent strain of E. coli (0157: H7) sickened 940 people, and caused full-blown illness in 11 others. Moss begins his article with 22-year-old Stephanie Smith, who suffered seizures and convulsions and and was in a doctor-induced coma for nine weeks. Smith was mostly a vegetarian, so her story is particularly cautionary in illustrating how dangerous factory-farmed meat in this country is.

Reading Moss’s article, it occurred to me that appallingly little has changed in America’s meatpacking industry since investigative journalist Eric Schlosser wrote Fast Food Nation in 2001. Indeed, not much has changed since Upton Sinclair wrote The Jungle, his classic muckraking novel of 1906. Schlosser, in a forward to the new Penguin Classics edition of The Jungle says, “Today, the American beef industry is more centralized and more concentrated than it was when the Jungle first appeared…Although rats are no longer being turned into sausage, unappetizing things still wind up in meat. The fecal contamination of ground beef explains why ordering a hamburger medium rare now qualifies as a form of high-risk behavior. A single bite of a tainted burger can make you extremely ill.”  And so, should we be surprised to read about victims like Stephanie Smith?

Herewith, I give you my (somewhat editorialized) Cliffs Notes to Moss’s article.  (Note: anyone who cares about food safety in this country should eventually read the entire article, which has already prompted Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack to announce that we need mandatory recalls of tainted food.)

1. Most mass-produced hamburgers in the U.S. are comprised of slaughterhouse trimmings and “a mash-like product derived from scraps” that are typically treated with ammonia to kill bacteria.

2. Each of these hamburgers contain “products” (note the use of the word products, not meat) from not only many cows but cows that were slaughtered at disparate plants across the U.S. and also abroad. (In this particular case, some of the trimmings were traced to a slaughterhouse in Uruguay.) American, my ass. (Though actually, I bet Uruguay has higher standards than we do when it comes to processing cattle.)

3. These suppliers are lax about testing their meat for bacteria before they sell it to large producer-grinders such as Cargill, and Cargill (and other large producers) do not require their suppliers to test for pathogens. (Cargill does do spot checks after the various ingredients are already ground together, but this is clearly ineffective.)

4.  Get this: the United States Department of Agriculture, the government entity responsible for monitoring the safety of our eggs, poultry products, and meat, “allows grinders to devise their own safety plans” and “has encouraged them [my emphasis] to test ingredients first as a way of increasing the chance of finding contamination.”  With the exception of Costco, which tests all trimmings before grinding and pressures suppliers to fix their problems, this laissez faire attitude is not working.

5.  The largest ingredient in the “American Chef’s Selection Angus Beef Patties” was a beef trimming known as 50/50 (half fat, half meat) that cost 60 cents a pound, making it the cheapest component in the burger.

6. Cargill is the country’s largest private company, making $116.6 billion in revenues last year.

7.  The supplier where Cargill bought these particular morsels of 50/50, Greater Omaha Packing, slaughters nearly 3,000 cattle a day.

8. Neither Cargill nor Greater Omaha responded to repeated requests from Moss to interview company officials.

9. The USDA conducts random spot checks of meat plants and federal inspectors had “repeatedly found” that Cargill was violating its own safety procedures in handling ground beef just weeks before Ms. Smith’s patty was made. These USDA inspectors failed to impose fines or sanctions, though.

10. Basically, nobody is taking responsibility for the safety of our meat supply.

11. Stephanie Smith is paralyzed from the waist down and her kidneys are in terrible shape.

*****

So where does this put you, the eater?  You can swear off hamburgers and other meat entirely (especially if it comes from a Big Food company like Cargill, that by virtue of its size must source its meat “products” from a variety of filthy large-scale slaughterhouses). Or you can choose your burgers wisely, finding small-scale local farmers who pasture their cattle (i.e. feed them grass, not corn and animal byproducts). Pastured meat is not only better for you (lower in saturated fat, high in anti-inflammatory omega 3’s and conjugated linoleic acid), it is less likely to contain virulent strains of E. coli and other pathogens.* For places to buy grass-fed meat in your town, see Eat Wild.  Sure, it costs more (one pound of grass-fed meat from my local butcher costs $7.50 a pound) but it tastes better and you—we—should all be eating meat less often, anyway. Plus, I’ve also never read about a single instance of E. coli coming from a grass-fed cow. (Cynics will say this is because so few farmers in the U.S. pasture their cattle; let them. It’s also smarter to buy food from small farmers because they can control quality, and be more scrupulous about cleanliness when the time comes to slaughter.)

* Cows are ruminants and when they are forced to eat a diet of corn, as most in the U.S. are, their guts become abnormally acidic, making the E. coli in their guts more able to survive the acidic environment of human’s guts. It’s not that pastured cows don’t get E. coli, too, they do. It’s just that the “grass-fed” E. coli will not survive the acidic shock of our digestive juices. Or so researchers speculate.

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