The New York Times article that ran over the weekend on e coli infections in ground meat is Exhibit A in why I am skeptical about industrial animal husbandry, and indeed, am still kind of dubious about the whole animal products thing.
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. Despite this, there is no federal requirement for grinders to test their ingredients for the pathogen.
The frozen hamburgers that the Smiths ate, which were made by the food giant Cargill, were labeled "American Chef's Selection Angus Beef Patties." Yet confidential grinding logs and other 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.
Using a combination of sources -- a practice followed by most large producers of fresh and packaged hamburger -- allowed Cargill to spend about 25 percent less than it would have for cuts of whole meat.
Those low-grade ingredients are cut from areas of the cow that are more likely to have had contact with feces, which carries E. coli, industry research shows. Yet Cargill, like most meat companies, relies on its suppliers to check for the bacteria and does its own testing only after the ingredients are ground together. 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.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.
The libertarian baiters out there want to know what I would do about this, huh, huh? and the answer is that while I'm certainly not against public health inspections of our food supply chain, I think we're probably going about this wrong.
The current approach to food safety is based on the trace-and-trap methods that were pioneered in the great public health campaigns of the nineteenth century. These were titanic achievements, don't get me wrong--but they're also time consuming, cumbersome, and likely to miss quite a lot of disease. After all, most cases of food poisoning are not reported. I'm pretty sure that I had food poisoning a month or so back, and I certainly didn't go to the doctor; I just lay under eighteen blankets in shaking misery until the thing passed.