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Ground Beef Gone Bad

Ground Beef Gone Bad

Mark Twain said that truth is stranger than fiction; after reading a bone-chilling story in the The New York Times this weekend I’m inclined to add that truth can also be far creepier than fiction. Creepier even than a gory horror film or twisted Steven King novel!

The title of the story sounds pretty mundane: E. Coli Path Shows Flaws in Beef Inspection. What’s new, right? It’s no secret that food inspection in the United States has proven less than perfect. But the reporter for this story dug deep to follow the events leading up to an E. coli outbreak in 2007 that left 940 people sick, and in particular, a young dancer who was left paralyzed.

I had always assumed that there was rigid testing at every step of the process for meat processing, and that the various outbreaks were rogue occurrences that had slipped through a large and under-managed system. Silly me. The truth is that there is no federal requirement for meat grinding facilities (grinders) to test their ingredients for the E. coli pathogen. According to the story, Cargill (from where the tainted meat in question came from) is “like most meat companies,” it 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 allows grinders to devise their own safety plans.

I find this hard to swallow: Meat companies get meat from a number of sources, grind it all together, then test it, which makes it extremely difficult to trace the source of tainted meat. Why? Because of handshake agreements between companies–tacit pacts that stand in the way of ingredient testing. Many big slaughterhouses use their muscle and only sell to grinders who agree NOT to test their shipments for E. coli. Slaughterhouses fear that one grinder’s discovery of E. coli will set off a recall of ingredients already sold to others. (And heaven forbid that contaminated meat should be recalled!) The story pointed out that Costco is one of the few big producers that tests trimmings for E. coli before grinding–and because of their policy, even with their huge buying power, they meet resistance from some big slaughterhouses (like Tyson).

So most people might think, well, OK, but if I practice great kitchen hygiene and cook the meat thoroughly it will be safe. Nope. A test by The Times found that the safe handling instructions are not enough to prevent the bacteria from spreading in the kitchen. The Times prepared three pounds of ground beef dosed with a strain of E. coli. Although the safety instructions on the package were followed, E. coli remained on the cutting board even after it was washed with soap and a towel picked up large amounts of bacteria from the meat.

That’s very scary to me (and I don’t even eat meat!), but it doesn’t stop there. There are descriptions of the slaughterhouse and meat processing facilities that will make your skin crawl–and then there’s the analysis of what ground beef is really comprised of. You’d think that ground beef is a chunk of meat sent through a grinder–not necessarily true. Commonly, ground beef is made from slaughterhouse trimmings and a “mash-like product” derived from scraps that are ground together, “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, say food experts and officials.

Ground beef has been blamed for 16 outbreaks in the last three years alone–this summer, contamination led to the recall of beef from nearly 3,000 grocers in 41 states. As The Times succinctly notes, “Neither the system meant to make the meat safe, nor the meat itself, is what consumers have been led to believe.”

So on that note…some recipes!
Black Bean and Mushroom Burgers
Lentil Almond Burgers
Beet and Carrot Burgers

Read more: All recipes, Diet & Nutrition, Eating for Health, Entrees, Health, News & Issues, , , , ,

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Melissa Breyer

Melissa Breyer is a writer and editor with a background in sustainable living, specializing in food, science and design. She is the co-author of True Food (National Geographic) and has edited and written for regional and international books and periodicals, including The New York Times Magazine. Melissa lives in Brooklyn, NY.

48 comments

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1:17AM PDT on Mar 18, 2013

Go Vegan

12:46AM PST on Nov 24, 2012

Denise P, are you joking? We should all hunt, kill and skin our meat all by our very selves? Meow! For all those people eating and hunting veggies does this mean that you can only eat them if you grow them yourselves, preferably organically without pesticides and non-GMO to boot! Hunted morels awhile back, they were tasty but be sure to get that sand and dirt out...fiddleheads are marvellous, also hunted those. Wild veggies such as small milkweed pods are marvellous as well. At least they are safe from Monsanto's clutches...at least for now!

The obligate carnivore who owns me purrs that she eats organic meat. Noms.

12:00AM PDT on Oct 28, 2012

Does this mean I can't consume my bleeding beets after the roots have been taken from the soil that gave it life? Plants are fascinating and of course not sentient in the human sense yet many humans believe if something isn't just like us it is of little merit. If some don't wish to eat meat then by all means, stick to fava beans and other fare. Animals living out normal lives on organic farms live a different existence from those in factory farms. Yes, some say no meat...ever but much of the world isn't going along with that belief.

8:24AM PDT on Jul 31, 2012

I make no apologies for eating meat, as long as it is organic, not factory farm. What gives me the right to eat a sentient being? I get hungry and want protein and am not a vegetarian or vegan. I have no intention of becoming one. Who says that plant life is not any more sacred than animal life or is that a human bias?

No one forces another to eat meat, you can eat beans and quinoa if you want but you have no right to sit in judgement of my diet just because you have a differing world view. When Mother Nature admits that she erred and alters the DNA of every organism on Earth to survive by eating rock pate, not meat/fruit/veggies then I will eat my rock pate. Looking forward to evolution? Enjoy your rock pate with a clear conscience, but until then I will still eat asparagus, quinoa and yes, organic, non-factory farmed meat!

4:40PM PDT on Jun 14, 2012

((((((

11:01AM PDT on Mar 26, 2012

So terrible. It's like a horror story that should be entitled "Ground Beef Gone Evil". Thanks Melissa.

8:42AM PDT on Mar 26, 2012

they never did a thing, nothing to deserve this. yet to have their lives sacrificed for nothing. the fate of one is reflected in the fates of all. the adage that he who lives by the sword shall die by the sword can be seen as consuming fear, torture, anger, confusion and death creates your own fear torture anger confusion and death... save lives and in turn save "you".
life has value beyond measure
Peace and Love

11:45AM PST on Dec 17, 2011

Nasty

7:28PM PDT on Aug 1, 2011

Great info. Thanks for sharing.

9:22AM PDT on Aug 11, 2010

Nothing beats a well made lentil burger topped with barbequed onions. I don't have a problem with people eating meat provided they hunted it, killed it and skinned it themselves. I'm sure if that were the case there would be few meat eaters in the world!

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