By Request: Weak Links in the Food Chain

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.

In virtually every case, when we could use blanket protective measures, rather than inspection-and-quarantine, we did.  That's not just because quarantine is pretty intrusive on human liberty.  It's better to build a central reservoir than try to track down the source of every case of typhoid; better to pasteurize milk than trying to test every single cow for multiple diseases; better to vaccinate for infectious diseases than shut the sufferers in with their families for weeks at a time.

We developed the USDA inspection regimes because we didn't have a way to sterilize meat without cooking it.  But now we do:  irradiation.  As Ron Bailey points out, irradiating meat is an excellent way to kill multiple bacteria.  Decades of study have shown that it is very safe, and does not render the food radioactive, but its uptake has been limited by consumer worries:  irradiated food sounds scary.  Consumer groups that should have been pushing a new way to ensure the safety of the food supply have instead whipped up panic against it.

As the second link shows, these worries have attended every major advance in food safety.  Unfortunately, I'm not sure we now have the will to overcome that sort of resistance.  I think it's obviously also true that suppliers should not be forbidden to test ground meat as a condition of buying it--indeed, I think they should probably be required to spot test it.  But testing the food is distinctly second best to treating it.

Meanwhile, I think the McArdle-Suderman household is permanently off ground meat products.  "Slaughterhouse trimmings and mash-like product" . . . eeeeeewwwwww.  I highly recommend investing in a high-quality food processor and bulk chuck roasts from Costco, which is what I'll be doing for any ground beef needs we have in the future.