Reader Crocodile Chuck pointed out a set of articles at the New York Times that illustrates how skewed priorities in America have become. They also reveal how little public ire there is in the face of large-scale abuses that affect the average Joe. If corporate prerogatives cannot be reined in when personal safety is at stake, how will they be curbed when the chicanery and looting is harder to pin down? The public just isn’t exercised about it.
The object lesson is America’s addiction to hamburgers versus E coli. E coli gets into the food chain when feces get into the meat. Period. It’s a very straightforward contamination mechanism. And in this case, the party fighting for the right to eat contaminated food is Cargill, and one of its major suppliers in its burger business, a company called Beef Products.
If you think I am overstating the case, let’s go back first to an October New York Times article:
Stephanie Smith, a children’s dance instructor, thought she had a stomach virus…
Then her diarrhea turned bloody. Her kidneys shut down. Seizures knocked her unconscious. The convulsions grew so relentless that doctors had to put her in a coma for nine weeks. When she emerged, she could no longer walk. The affliction had ravaged her nervous system and left her paralyzed.
Ms. Smith, 22, was found to have a severe form of food-borne illness caused by E. coli, which Minnesota officials traced to the hamburger that her mother had grilled for their Sunday dinner in early fall 2007…
Meat companies and grocers have been barred from selling ground beef tainted by the virulent strain of E. coli known as O157:H7 since 1994, after an outbreak at Jack in the Box restaurants left four children dead. Yet tens of thousands of people are still sickened annually by this pathogen, federal health officials estimate, with hamburger being the biggest culprit…This summer, contamination led to the recall of beef from nearly 3,000 grocers in 41 states.
Yves here. Now Smith’s reaction was unusually severe, but the point is with the 1994 rule this should not be happening at all, and it still is. Why? The big reason is enforcement is a joke. Grinders are not required to test for the pathogen, and the inspections are rare and even then, an imperfect control mechanism:
The frozen hamburgers that the Smiths ate, which were made by the food giant Cargill, were labeled “American Chef’s Selection Angus Beef Patties.”….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.
Yves here. Did you catch that? to the extent the burgers are tested, it’s only after the meat has been ground, and hence impossible to tell what the source might be. Does that look like a serious effort to assure safety? But it gets better:
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.
Yves again. So there is active, widespread collusion to undermine safe practices. Back to the article:
Food scientists have registered increasing concern about the virulence of this pathogen since only a few stray cells can make someone sick, and they warn that federal guidance to cook meat thoroughly and to wash up afterward is not sufficient. A test by The Times found that the safe handling instructions are not enough to prevent the bacteria from spreading in the kitchen.
Yves here. The New York Times describes in some detail how feces can and do enter the food production process. Then it turns to Cargill’s intransigence. Cargill was the target of inspections is 2007; spot checks found that nearly 25% had “serious problems” safety-wise. In addition:
In the weeks before Ms. Smith’s patty was made, federal inspectors had repeatedly found that Cargill was violating its own safety procedures in handling ground beef, but they imposed no fines or sanctions…
When Cargill defended its safety system and initially resisted making some changes, an agency official wrote back: “How is food safety not the ultimate issue?”
Yves again. The article had a long, informative description of the hamburger business system, how feces can and do enter burger production, how profit and output pressures make that more likely.
The article in particular discusses one process used by suppliers of fatty meat, ahem, “trim”, which may have been a culprit in the Smith poisoning:
Cargill’s final source was a supplier that turns fatty trimmings into what it calls “fine lean textured beef.” The company, Beef Products Inc., said it bought meat that averages between 50 percent and 70 percent fat, including “any small pieces of fat derived from the normal breakdown of the beef carcass.” It warms the trimmings, removes the fat in a centrifuge and treats the remaining product with ammonia to kill E. coli….
An Iowa State University study financed by Beef Products found that ammonia reduces E. coli to levels that cannot be detected. The Department of Agriculture accepted the research as proof that the treatment was effective and safe. And Cargill told the agency after the outbreak that it had ruled out Beef Products as the possible source of contamination. [emphasis ours]
But federal school lunch officials found E. coli in Beef Products material in 2006 and 2008 and again in August, and stopped it from going to schools, according to Agriculture Department records and interviews.
Yves here. So the faith in efficacy of this ammonia-washing process is based on a single study, funded by a company that uses it to reduce costs. Would you rely on it?
Beef Products is a major player:
With seven million pounds produced each week, the company’s product is widely used in hamburger meat sold by grocers and fast-food restaurants and served in the federal school lunch program. Ten percent of Ms. Smith’s burger came from Beef Products, which charged Cargill about $1.20 per pound, or 20 cents less than the lean trimmings in the burger, billing records show.
Yves here. Do the math. Seven million pounds a week. Assume a half a pound a burger. That is 14 million burger equivalents (remember this product gets mixed in with other beef scraps). McDonalds has been a buyer of Beef Products’ “product” since 2004.
Now we get to the curious part. The Times had an article yesterday about that very same dubious feces removal process, and does not connect the dots back to the earlier article, and in particular, the connections to Cargill. Key bits:
Beef Products Inc., had been looking to expand into the hamburger business with a product made from beef that included fatty trimmings the industry once relegated to pet food and cooking oil. The trimmings were particularly susceptible to contamination, but a study commissioned by the company showed that the ammonia process would kill E. coli as well as salmonella.
Officials at the United States Department of Agriculture endorsed the company’s ammonia treatment, and have said it destroys E. coli “to an undetectable level.” They decided it was so effective that in 2007, when the department began routine testing of meat used in hamburger sold to the general public, they exempted Beef Products…
With the U.S.D.A.’s stamp of approval, the company’s processed beef has become a mainstay in America’s hamburgers. McDonald’s, Burger King and other fast-food giants use it as a component in ground beef, as do grocery chains. The federal school lunch program used an estimated 5.5 million pounds of the processed beef last year alone.
But government and industry records obtained by The New York Times show that in testing for the school lunch program, E. coli and salmonella pathogens have been found dozens of times in Beef Products meat, challenging claims by the company and the U.S.D.A. about the effectiveness of the treatment…..
In July, school lunch officials temporarily banned their hamburger makers from using meat from a Beef Products facility in Kansas because of salmonella — the third suspension in three years, records show. Yet the facility remained approved by the U.S.D.A. for other customers.
Presented by The Times with the school lunch test results, top department officials said they were not aware of what their colleagues in the lunch program had been finding for years.
The Beef Products case reveals a schism between the main Department of Agriculture and its division that oversees the school lunch program…Within the U.S.D.A., the treated beef has been a source of friction for years. The department accepted the company’s own study as evidence that the treatment was effective. School lunch officials, who had some doubts about its effectiveness, required that Beef Products meat be tested, as they do all beef used by the program.
School lunch officials said that in some years Beef Products testing results were worse than many of the program’s two dozen other suppliers, which use traditional meat processing methods.
Yves here. There is also a VERY long discussion of how the product’s ammonia smell elicited customer complaints, and this scrap product has an alkalinity well beyond the range of most foods.
Now consider this part:
Cargill, one of the nation’s largest hamburger makers, is a big buyer of Beef Products’ ammoniated trimmings for its patties. Company records show that Beef Products, like other suppliers, has periodically exceeded Cargill’s limits on acceptable bacteria levels. That led Cargill to stop buying meat from two Beef Products plants for several months in 2006 after company tests showed excessive levels of salmonella.
But the following year, when Cargill faced an E. coli outbreak, it ruled out Beef Products as a possible culprit, citing the U.S.D.A.’s view that the ammonia treatment provided a “lethality step” for the pathogen. In addition, Cargill officials said recently, they suspect that another supplier, not Beef Products, was the problem. As a result, Beef Products did not face as wide a recall as other Cargill suppliers.
Yves here. Now see what this says. Cargill admits to having had salmonella problems with Beef Products, but argues that it isn’t an E coli problem, backing the company’s claims that its ammonia washing process is effective, when there is ample evidence that it isn’t.
So why is Cargill defending Beef Products? The October story had the goods. Beef Products provided 10% of the “meat” in the burger that ruined Stephanie Smith’s health. Beef Products is a very significant supplier to Cargill overall. Its “product” is 5/6 the cost of ground beef. So if we assume that that 10% is representative across all of Cargill’s hamburger products (a big if; my bet is, given Beef Products’ huge weekly output, it is a higher percent of Cargill’s typical burger), then Cargill is defending a dubious producer and process that saves it 1.6% of a typical burger. While that is a big number in a thin margin business like food, why are we discussing tradeoffs like this at all? That sort of calculus was deemed completely unacceptable with the Pinto, a car that would turn into a fireball on a rear-end impact. What indicted Ford, its manufacturer, in the court of public opinion when Mother Jones Magazine obtained a memo that showed that Ford was aware of the problem, and decided it was not worth its while to incur an extra $11 per vehicle in costs to prevent an expected 180 deaths per year.
Yes, meat inspection in the US is a horrorshow (a much bigger topic) but the Cargill/Beef Products case is straightforward. This sort of contamination has been illegal since 1994. Yet (outside the school lunch program), greedy companies who have and continue to hurt consumers to bolster their bottom lines get their regulators to give them a free pass. And unless consumers take action that hits the companies’ bottom lines directly, like boycotting mass produced burgers, these dangerous practices are certain to continue.