it’s The Jungle out there

Image via Flickr user VirtualErn, used under Creative Commons.
Image via Flickr user VirtualErn, used under Creative Commons.

The New York Times has an investigative report out today about E. coli in our meat.  Michael Moss writes that tens of thousands of Americans are sickened by E. coli each year, most of it coming from ground beef.  Though we like to think we’ve come a long way since Upton Sinclair first exposed the dangers of the meat industry in The Jungle over 100 years ago, despite all our science and technology, we really haven’t.  In fact, Moss writes, “eating ground beef is still a gamble.”

Why ground beef?  Moss writes:

Ground beef is usually not simply a chunk of meat run through a grinder. Instead, records and interviews show, a single portion of hamburger meat is often an amalgam of various grades of meat from different parts of cows and even from different slaughterhouses. These cuts of meat are particularly vulnerable to E. coli contamination, food experts and officials say.

In particular, he highlights a tainted batch of Cargill patties. The patties in question 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.

You may be shocked right now, thinking, WE EAT FOOD THAT’S BEEN SOAKED IN AMMONIA? Yep. It’s one of the things I learned while watching Food, Inc. which features scenes inside a plant where ammonia-soaked hamburger additives are made.  And yes, these additives are found in patties marked “Pure Angus.”  Tell me, which part of the Angus contains ammonia??

So, your hamburger is made of all sorts of cow (and not cow) parts that come from all over the place before being ground into burgery bits. Seems simple enough to test the different batches of parts for contamination before grinding them, right?  In fact, that’s what the USDA recommends.  But, if you’ve watched Food, Inc. you already know this, the USDA can’t actually FORCE these companies to test their meat.  They can just “recommend it.”  In fact, even if meat is found to be contaminated, the USDA can’t even force a recall.  Just recommend it.  And you can guess what meat companies do with those recommendations:

Unwritten agreements between some companies appear to stand in the way of ingredient testing. Many big slaughterhouses will sell only to grinders who agree not to test their shipments for E. coli, according to officials at two large grinding companies. Slaughterhouses fear that one grinder’s discovery of E. coli will set off a recall of ingredients they sold to others.

Even when the USDA finds food safety violations, they rarely impose fines or sanctions.  Why? Because (as I learned in Food, Inc. and The Omnivore’s Dilemma), then meat processors would stop opening their factories up for voluntary inspections.  Yep.  They’re voluntary.

So we can’t count on meat packers to police themselves, because they’re never going to prioritize safety over profits when their methods save them 30 cents a pound of beef, and we can’t count on the USDA to protect us, because they basically lack the power to do so. And at every step of the way packers and government officials keep stressing that proper handling and prep of raw meat will keep us safe.  But Moss notes that independent testing by the Times shows that even following all the food safety precautions isn’t enough to keep bacteria from spreading in a kitchen, or surviving.

You might say, well, consumers just need to be smarter about the beef they buy.  But Moss notes that the packaging gives us very little to go on.  He writes of the amalgamated patties:

The listed ingredients revealed little of how the meat was made. There was just one meat product listed: “Beef.”

How can we make wise choices if we don’t even really know what we’re buying?

So what can we do?  For one, the article mentions that Costco does test all of its beef before grinding, so they are probably one of the safer bets.

For another, one thing Michael Pollan mentions in The Omnivore’s Dilemma is the effect the way we raise our beef has on E. coli in their guts.  I’m paraphrasing from memory, but the gist is that cows are made to eat grass.  When cows eat grass, the chemical balance in their stomachs keeps E. coli at bay.  Pasture-raised, grass-fed cows do not usually have E. coli in their systems.  But we do not raise cows eating grass as they have evolved to eat.  Instead, we keep them confined, feeding them corn and animal byproducts with a steady dose of hormones and antibiotics to try and keep them from getting sick, since their poor diets weaken their immune systems.  On this diet, the chemical balance in their guts is not at the appropriate level, and they are more likely to have E. coli.  If we could just raise our cattle the way they were evolved to live, eating grass in a pasture, all this E. coli might not be a problem at all.

But instead, we accept the factory farm/feedlot system as a given and try to work out solutions on the processing end, instead of preventing the thing that is causing all this E. coli in the first place.  How crazy are we??

So.  We can buy meat from farmers who pasture their cows, but that takes some research and some serious doing (there is ONE place in my town where I could purchase such meat).  Next best, we can buy meat from Costco, which does more robust testing.  Or we could just not eat beef at all.  All of those are ways to do better.

But at the same time, we have to work for positive change, and one thing we can do is urge Congress to take up laws to give the USDA the power to really protect us, to make involuntary inspections and to force testing and recalls.  You can learn more about that here.

As for me, I don’t cook beef in my home except once in a blue moon.  I’m not sure I’ll EVER be cooking ground beef in my home again, but if I do, it will be from Ted’s Butcher Block (the local source I mentioned above) or Costco.  I’m not even sure if I’m going to eat ground beef in restaurants anymore, which will really kill my occasional pleasure of Five Guys Burgers and Fries.

3 Replies to “it’s The Jungle out there”

  1. You did miss one option – buy the meat as steaks, with a much better health record, and grind it yourself. In fact, you can sear the outside of a solid cut, or dip in boiling water, to sterilize it. (E. coli are gut bacteria, and are found on meat only when the knife cutting the meat went into intestines first, and so are only on the outside of a solid cut.) The small cooked portion will not be detectable post-grinding.


  2. I’ll admit I stole it from a chef I know. Except he doesn’t bother to sterilize his in boiling water – that I read about in a book.


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