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Ground beef regulation sickening, in need of reform

Wednesday, October 7, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT; updated 2:33 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Next time you have friends over to barbecue or throw together some Hamburger Helper for the kids, be sure to cook that ground beef at 160 degrees. 

Sure, you could depend on the slaughterhouses and the grinders to make sure your meat hasn’t been in contact with feces and infected with E. coli , but that’s probably a bad idea — a really bad idea. 

In an exhaustively reported story in Sunday's edition of The New York Times and an exemplary piece of journalism focusing on E. coli testing in ground beef throughout the meat industry, reporter Michael Moss obtained numerous records and logs to piece together the 2007 recall of 844,812 pounds of ground beef by food industry giant Cargill. With these records, Moss creates a timeline of the recall while extensively detailing a profit-driven process plagued by corner-cutting.

For many, the paperwork proving that Cargill’s “American Chef’s Selection Angus Beef Patties” are really made from a combination of different meat grades and “mash-like products” is probably the most disturbing aspect of this story, and reading the words “trimmings of meat from dairy cows and bulls that are too old for feedlot fattening” might even have turned a few people vegan. 

On this topic, I shall cast no stones since there’s nothing that gets me out of the bed in the morning like some sizzling scrapple, which I just discovered contains pork stock, pork livers, pork fat, pork snouts, corn meal, pork hearts, wheat flour, salt and spices. Besides, criticizing the quality of product the food industry produces ignores the fact that the current state of the agriculture and meat industry is a monster bred by Americans spoiled by cheap food prices.

We don’t like to think about maimed and sick cows dragged to slaughter. We like our $1 hamburgers to come with a side of fries, not guilt. Although the state of our food system is in dire need of an overhaul, this would take a concerted effort by this country's citizens and decision-makers free from corporate influence.  Therefore, this will never be addressed. 

What was most troubling about the story and perhaps most in our control was the lack of regulation by the government and the power these companies wield. The ingredients used in the Cargill burgers came from four separate sources, three in the U.S. and one in South America.  Although each supplier should be testing for E. coli, so should the grinders, and yet there is still no federal law requiring grinders to do so.   

Testing is only occasionally done by grinders because massive suppliers won’t deal with grinders if they are going to retest their meat upon every delivery. Tyson won’t even sell to Costco because it exercises quality control with every shipment, according to a quote in the article from Costco's food safety director.  Put simply, this is outrageous. The fact that this is common knowledge in the industry and that it is allowed to persist is pathetic.  Of course, we shouldn’t find the lack of repercussions surprising. 

“Federal inspectors had repeatedly found that Cargill was violating its own safety procedure in handling ground beef, but they imposed no fines or sanctions, records show,” The Times reported. 

In 2007 and 2008 the U.S. Department of Agriculture tried recommending that processors test their ingredients from separate suppliers separately before they grind, but this was met with resistance.  Those in the meat industry claimed smaller companies could not afford to adhere to such sanctions. 

This worry reads more like money-hungry companies hating the idea of having to be accountable than legitimate concern for the little guy. Although there might be some smaller companies that would find extra testing difficult to afford, I’m pretty sure the pressure to keep such laws at bay comes down to a few morally dubious cost/benefit analysts.

As the Times reported, this is as stern as the government has been so far: “The United States Department of Agriculture, which allows grinders to devise their own safety plans, has encouraged them to test ingredients first as a way of increasing the chance of finding contamination.”

Well, gee, thanks, Department of Agriculture. We sure are glad you would rather encourage than mandate such discretion.

When Upton Sinclair titled his expose on American labor practices and the meat packing industry "The Jungle," he was making a statement about the evaporation of morals and accountability that can occur in a profit-driven system that answers to no one. 

One hundred three years have passed since the book was written, and a couple of instances in this Times piece make it clear that we still have a ways to go. Stronger government regulation always gets a bad rap, but in this case, it is definitely called for. A government has a duty to ensure the safety and well-being of its citizens — not its corporations.   

Andrew Del-Colle is the Arts editor for Vox Magazine and a graduate student at the Missouri School of Journalism.

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Comments

Mark Foecking October 7, 2009 | 12:59 p.m.

The incidence of toxic E. coli disease is estimated at 70,000 per year:

http://www.cdc.gov/nczved/dfbmd/disease_...

Since Americans collectively eat about 360 billion meals/year, this means any one person has about a 1/5,000,000 (70,000/360,000,000,000) chance of getting an E. coli infection, or 1 chance in 5000 years.

Recalls are prompted either by government action or liability concerns. I don't think you've shown that the testing, or lack of it, is a significant health concern, given the minor incidence of disease attributable to E. coli in beef.

DK

(Report Comment)
John Schultz October 7, 2009 | 1:16 p.m.

The common link in this piece? Relying on the government to keep you safe.

(Report Comment)
Charles Dudley Jr October 7, 2009 | 2:04 p.m.

Well if we totally gave ourselves over to the private sector there sure might be alot more dead Americans by now.

(Report Comment)
Mark Foecking October 7, 2009 | 2:16 p.m.

Companies don't stay in business by killing or sickening their customers, Chuck. That's one of the checks and balances of the market - if a company has a bad reputation for quality or safety, they will lose business to their competitors.

We have some of the safest food in human history. It's not worth worrying about - our food safety procedures are entirely adequate. Your average person might get a food borne disease a few times in their life, and most of the time it's just a few quick trips to the toilet.

DK

(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith October 7, 2009 | 3:12 p.m.

I agree with Mark and John. Since World War II we seem to have a propensity to go around "manufacturing" problems where they don't exist or seldom exist. I suppose that has one "feel good" consequence: it allows us to brush aside more real and serious problems.

(Report Comment)
Christopher Foote October 7, 2009 | 3:37 p.m.

@Mark,

Your statistics assume each meal has an equal chance of being contaminated. Based on the reporting I would assume if one often ate ground beef from Cargill his/her chance of ingesting potentially virulent strains of E. Coli would be much higher than someone who did not. Also, if 70,000 people are infected out of 300 million people per year, than your chance per year of being afflicted with the disease is 70,000/300,000,000 = .023% (this assumes everyone has an equal chance of developing the disease, which is not the case). Also the 70,000 is for infection by one specific strain of E. Coli (E. Coli O157:H7) that produces the Shiga Toxin. The CDC estimates there are 5000 deaths per year due to food borne pathogens (around 60 are attributed to E. Coli O157:H7): http://www.cdc.gov/ncidod/EID/vol5no5/me...
From the same report, 1500 deaths per year are attributed to Salmonella, Listeria, and Taxoplasma alone. In addition to E. Coli, Salmonella has been found in Cargill ground beef in 2009. Listeria has also been fidentified in Cargill products, though not in the last year. I think 5000 deaths per year is a significant enough number to warrant increased regulation of our food supply.

(Report Comment)
Mark Foecking October 7, 2009 | 4:28 p.m.

Christopher:

.023%/year translates to about 1 chance in 5000 years. I think my statistics were correct - I should have said 1/5,000,000 chance of being infected per meal, and since each person eats about 1000 meals per year, we get the 1/5000 figure.

Is it known that more people actually got sick from eating Cargill products? Was the recall something that was indicated by testing, or did people actually get sick? Andrew?

Trouble is, a lot of food borne illness is the result of improper handling of food during or after preparation, not from the commercial source. Salmonella is actually a fairly common organism in other meats also - Listeria less so - it's not just Cargill that is the problem here. Most meats have some level of bacterial contamination (veggies too). That's why we wash and cook them, and have standards for separating and storing them.

It is just as likely that increased regulation would simply drive up the price of food while not significantly affecting that 5,000 figure. Not that I have anything against more expensive food if it's really safer (or more local, or better tasting, etc) - I just think we should have good evidence that increased regulation would actually fix the problem.

DK

(Report Comment)
Charles Dudley Jr October 7, 2009 | 4:54 p.m.

>>> Mark Foecking October 7, 2009 | 2:16 p.m.
Companies don't stay in business by killing or sickening their customers, Chuck. <<<

I call bullox on that one Mark as with all of the scientific knowledge world wide we still cannot cure Cancer but we sure can come up with more potent and dangerous drugs that can "Nuke Cancer cells" if you will in the body and at times eliminate that Cancer from recurring.

Bullox Mark is what your comment is and more flim flam B.S. from the pharmaceutical companies who are just getting richer selling those drugs being used.

(Report Comment)
Christopher Foote October 7, 2009 | 5:03 p.m.

I certainly agree that the regulation should be effective. My point was that food borne illnesses are not trivial, at 5000 deaths per year.
As it stands now, current regulations are virtually nonexistent. Simply labeling where the food was produced would be an improvement. If I, as a consumer, was informed by the packaging that the ground beef was from a number of different localities, I wouldn't buy it.
I would think that for the large agriculture concerns such as Cargill, they have a much higher contamination rate than smaller processors, due to the practice of combining meats to be ground from different slaughterhouses. In the article, it is implied that the meat in question was derived from four different sources, including one from a different country. Let's assume an equal chance of contamination, regardless of the slaughterhouse, the Cargill meat is than four times as likely to be contaminated than ground beef from a smaller producer that uses a single source. This is analogous to rolling a die once versus rolling it four times.

(Report Comment)
Allan Sharrock October 7, 2009 | 7:49 p.m.

Well Christopher you obviously haven't been to the store lately because ALL meats are labeled where they came from. It is called Country of Origin Labeling, COOL. This is a poor article on so many levels but hey this is what I have come to expect from this writer on opinion pieces. We rely on the government for food safety so his solution is more government. Isn't the definition of idiocy doing the same thing and expecting a different result?

(Report Comment)
Charles Dudley Jr October 8, 2009 | 4:26 a.m.

Allan Sharrock if the private sector was more honest we would not be at this point we are now. I'm not saying Government is honest either.

The issue should be how do we really keep both more honest?

(Report Comment)
Mark Foecking October 8, 2009 | 5:38 a.m.

But Chris, you're still saying that all food borne illness is the responsibility of the producer. I question that assertion.

One organism is usually not enough to cause disease. Depending on the bug, hundreds to 10's of thousands of live organisms have to be ingested to get past the initial defense mechanisms of the body. I'd imagine that if you try hard enough, you could culture E. coli or Salmonella out of any piece of meat anywhere. Testing protocols sample products at a frequency and amount that statistically, will find some high percentage of product that might cause disease under some circumstance.

I'd think that the chances of contamination increase linearly with the amount of meat you grind. Each slaughtered animal has a certain chance of contamination. Whether they come from one slaughterhouse or four, the more cattle you slaughter, the greater your chances of contamination.

Meat from one contaminated cow can add a bacterial load to a much larger amount of meat by being blended, however, a higher amount of uncontaminated meat may well dilute the bacteria to a concentration not likely to cause disease, if the meat is otherwise properly handled. The idea is to keep the incidence of contamination low enough that the product is safe under all reasonable circumstances.

I think giants like Cargill will collapse under their own weight in the future, due to expensive energy. It will become cheaper to produce food locally because of shipping costs - same with CAFO's. But without knowing the percentage of food borne illness that can actually be traced back to the producer, any increased regulation may be premature or ineffective, simply raising prices to the consumer for little benefit.

The tone of this article suggests more a hatred of large corporations and the profit motive in general, rather than specific concerns about practical food safety. Regulations stemming from such a premise may well be misapplied.

DK

(Report Comment)
Allan Sharrock October 8, 2009 | 9:30 a.m.

Well Charles I am not really sure it is an issue of honesty more likely competence. The government has proven time and again they cannot handle large issues or monitor everything. If you remove the government oversight in this case then you open the possibility of law suits against companies that get people sick from their lack of testing. With the feds in place all the companies have to say is "Hey the feds tested it and everything was OK." Then the lawsuit is already on shaky ground. Let’s examine the people they hire and the government system. All government employees are almost hired for life. You really have to mess up to be fired. If you know this how serious are you going to take your job and how hard are you really going to work? This is why I like term limits the last thing I want are my elected officials to become too comfy and feel like they are riding the gravy train. Once elected in the house they better bust their back side so they can get elected to the senate which have fewer seats.

(Report Comment)
Andrew Del-Colle October 8, 2009 | 10:20 a.m.

Hey everyone,

Sorry for the late response.

John, as I was writing this column, I knew you would use this as a perfect example of why the government should stay out of the way. But I don't really get that. I am a little jaded when it comes to people operating as a functioning society without proper oversight, especially when there are no repercussions. The headline of this column got changed, but originally it had to do with this ground beef fiasco being another example of poor regulation. I don't think the government needs to impede on all aspects of life, but I do believe it has a duty to keep a watchful eye on those people and corporations that play such a large role in this country.

Mark, you say these companies will be hurt by loss of business if they are producing a bad product, but I really don't buy that. For smaller companies this might work, but for massive corporations like Cargill or Tyson, I seriously doubt such an in-depth report will even hurt them. I do not have hatred for all corporations, but I do have a healthy dislike for a system that allows Tyson to refuse to sell product to Costco because it has strict health regulations. Your right, the numbers and chances are small, but when has that ever stopped us when it comes to vigilance? The chances of a child being victimized by a pedophile have to got to be pretty low, but we expect our government to be proactive and rule with a heavy hand in this situation. Apples and oranges, I know, but you get what I mean. I definitely think our massive food system is in need of an overhaul. From CAFOs to Monsanto, the industry seems more like a science fiction novel.

Allan, I am sorry you think I am such a horrible columnist. That being said, I am usually underwhelmed by your comments, so I guess we're just at odds.

So gang, if more government regulation is "idiocy," and without enforced regulation, some corporations are willing to endanger the lives of citizens (no matter how small) to cut corners, what is the solution?

Thanks for commenting,

Andrew

(Report Comment)
Christopher Foote October 8, 2009 | 10:52 a.m.

@Allan Sharrock,

I seriously doubt that the package of ground beef in question listed the four different localities, especially Uruguay.
Here's a quote from the New York Times article: "Cargill records show that the hamburgers were made from a mix of slaughterhouse trimmings and a mash-like product derived from scraps that were ground together at a plant in Wisconsin. The ingredients came from slaughterhouses in Nebraska, Texas and Uruguay, and from a South Dakota company that processes fatty trimmings and treats them with ammonia to kill bacteria."

I also doubt that ammonia was listed as one of the ingredients.

The claim that government is incompetent at regulation is without merit.

@Mark,

The New York Times article also mentions that the meat scraps incorporated into the ground beef were more likely to have contacted feces, thus the risk of contamination is much higher. The company did save 25% in production costs by adopting this strategy. This goes back to the point of whether Cargill and other large agri-businesses are more likely to have contaminated products, versus smaller producers who do not use this practice. The answer appears to be yes.
As to the bacterial load, under ideal conditions E. Coli doubles every 20 minutes. For this particular pathogen, E. coli O157, it is especially virulent, only a few cells are needed to make you sick. Here's Azlin Mustapha, associate professor of food science in the MU College of Agriculture, Food and Natural:
"...as few as 10 live cells can inflict a severe intestinal illness...", http://www.extension.org/pages/Universit...

(Report Comment)
Allan Sharrock October 8, 2009 | 11:41 a.m.

Well Chris the USDA is responsible for the testing and they failed so I guess it does have some merit. You said you seriously doubt that that the package had said companies listed but you don't have any proof one way of the other. I have been to the store plenty and they ARE labeling where the meat comes from. As far as the trimmings coming from a bunch of different places I really don't see why that is a issue. I mean is a car made with all the parts from start to finish in the same location? NO the parts are sent in from different places. At the molecular level it really doesn't matter if the meat you eat came from the jaw of a cow or the thigh. Protein is protein.

Sorry I hurt your feelings Andrew. If you plan on writing opinion pieces then expect people to disagree with you. Just as I expect people to disagree with my blog comments.

(Report Comment)
Andrew Del-Colle October 8, 2009 | 12:05 p.m.

Allan,

No hurt feelings. I have heard and been told worse. I just do my best to address those that disagree or are disappointed with my columns. In your case, you were being honest, so I felt you deserved my honesty in return.

Have a good one,

Andrew

(Report Comment)
Allan Sharrock October 8, 2009 | 12:44 p.m.

Also Chris if you live in Columbia you drink Ammonia every day. It is in our water along with probably 20 other chemicals. Most chemicals will not harm you so long as they are not taken in vast quantity. I mean excess of anything is bad for you for the most part. I guess the problem is that most people really have no idea the process behind how their food is made. That translates into ill informed people who can get elected or may vote on issues they really have no idea about other than what a particular group may tell them. Do you really think that canned spaghetti companies make the flour to make the noodles or create the sauce all at the same location? No. You should watch How it's Made sometime. Bottom line is if you have a problem with Cargill or Tyson then buy locally.

(Report Comment)

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