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.”