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.