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.”