A Jungle for a new generation?

Loooong article in the NYTimes today about food safety in the meat industry. Or check out the crib sheet from Henry Blodget if you’re short on time.

I don’t quite know where to start with this one. The short short version: The Times tells one slice of the story of woefully inadequate food safety in the US through the prism of one woman who was paralyzed from E. coli-contaminated frozen hamburgers from Sam’s Club.

In its early paragraphs, the article relies on the rather gross nature of industrial meat production — and E. coli poisoning in particular — to get its point across. It details how the frozen hamburgers at the heart of this E. coli outbreak were assembled from basically left over bits of cow from processing plants on two continents. It’s not very nice, though frankly if you’re paying 70 cents for a pound of “beef” I’m not sure your standards can really be that high.

Then there’s the E. coli contamination angle. E. coli comes from shit – feces if we must – so the idea of ingesting it in your burger is bound to alarm people. However, the process by which beef comes to be contaminated with a bit of shit just seems like the cost of meat production on an industrial scale. It’s gross to think about, but you can see how it happens. The problem comes when no one then tests for E. coli in the meat before it’s sent to markets and restaurants around the country.

I understand why the writer opened with shock tactics. But the heart of the article, and where the real problem for food safety lies, is the later sections on testing and regulation. Not as sexy, but more important.

I won’t bore you with the numbers, but testing for E coli and other bacteria is so rare as to be basically non-existent. The USDA doesn’t require it, slaughterhouses rarely do it, or do it badly, and often refuse to sell to processors who perform their own tests. Costco comes out looking good: they test all meat before processing and selling to their customers. But other processors, like Cargill, won’t allow for their meat to be tested until its been ground up and combined with meat from slaughterhouses around the country, making any attempt to trace an outbreak impossible.

This is what you get when your food safety regime is also your corporate caretaker.

The article is full of great sections like:

The food safety officer at American Foodservice, which grinds 365 million pounds of hamburger a year, said it stopped testing trimmings a decade ago because of resistance from slaughterhouses. “They would not sell to us,” said Timothy P. Biela, the officer. “If I test and it’s positive, I put them in a regulatory situation. One, I have to tell the government, and two, the government will trace it back to them. So we don’t do that.”


As it fed ingredients into its grinders, Cargill watched for some unwanted elements. Using metal detectors, workers snagged stray nails and metal hooks that could damage the grinders, then warned suppliers to make sure it did not happen again.

While I’m of course pleased Cargill tests for something, maybe they could widen the net to things that don’t just cost them money by damaging their machinery.

Alas, even the prospect of an urging from the USDA was too much for the industry to bear:

In August 2008, the U.S.D.A. issued a draft guideline again urging, but not ordering, processors to test ingredients before grinding. “Optimally, every production lot should be sampled and tested before leaving the supplier and again before use at the receiver,” the draft guideline said.

But the department received critical comments on the guideline, which has not been made official.[…]In an October 2008 letter to the department, the American Association of Meat Processors said the proposed guideline departed from U.S.D.A.’s strategy of allowing companies to devise their own safety programs, “thus returning to more of the agency’s ‘command and control’ mind-set.”

Yes of course, wouldn’t want the government urging meat processors to aim to poison fewer people.

I understand of course that in addition to the business of food safety, the government must also be in the business of business, and that a strong agricultural industry that provides food cheaply is part of that. I get that. But the priorities are so plainly misaligned now.

When I set out to write this post, I was tempted to take the attitude of ‘300 million Americans eat American food every day, and most of them don’t get sick, so how bad can it be?’ And that’s true, too. Most meat isn’t contaminated, most spinach and peanut butter don’t have cow shit in them, it’s not so terrible. But reading the whole thing, and being reminded once more — with damning quotes! — of the sheer stupidity of putting business in charge of regulating itself, I changed my mind. Most of us don’t get sick, but it’s no thanks to the businesses that feed us so long as they can make a tidy profit.



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