Tainted Food and the Food Industry

"Tainted Meat: The Sickening of Stephanie Smith" in today's New York Times health section looks at how the meat industry is allowed to police itself while feeding untested meat scraps, or "trim," into supposedly tested ground beef supplies before selling to the customer.

Unfortunately, the US House of Representatives has already voted to pass a bill that makes it harder for small and organic food producers to compete with the industrial food giants that source some of the worst food-borne illness outbreaks.

Stephanie Smith, a 20 year-old dance instructor, became violently ill after eating a single home-cooked beef hamburger made from tainted beef. Stephanie Smith, a 20 year-old dance instructor, became violently ill after eating a single home-cooked beef hamburger made from tainted beef. Stephanie is now in a wheelchair and may never walk again. How can one meat sandwich do this to a healthy young woman?

The Times article and accompanying video and food industry documents track how tainted meat makes it into our supermarkets (video: Tainted Meat).

Even a miniscule quantity of E-coli from animal or human waste, especially the deadly E-coli 0157:H7, if widely distributed can cause an epidemic of potentially fatal illness.

Ground beef is not the only possible vector for virulent food-borne illness. We know this from recent outbreaks caused by E-Coli tainted spinach and tomatoes and Salmonella-contaminated peanut butter.

But beef from commercially fed and slaughtered cattle presents a higher risk than most foods. We can wash spinach, tomatoes and other vegetables and fruits. One can wash home-cooked chicken and cook it well. Ground meat really can't be washed. And ground beef in particular is often served underdone or rare.

Like an arrow through the heart of America's love affair with patties on a bun at unbeatable low prices, a long, dirty-red line links the masses of cattle subjected to filthy conditions on feed lots to E-Coli on beef "trim," or scraps tossed into the grinder without inspection in our local supermarkets.

Vegans and vegetarians have no reason to feel smug or over-secure, except so far as their meals don't begin in slaughterhouses. And E-coli is not the only threat. Every year, according to a personal injury lawyer, Prizker, there are many recalls of non-meat foods contaminated with bugs such as listeria, which can affect tofu among other foods.

"In the United States, an estimated 2,500 persons become seriously ill with listeriosis [Listeria infection] each year. Of these, 500 die." Aside from listeria, E-coli can get into tofu from human hands. Tofu sold out of open cans of water in small grocery stores in New York City is notorious for bacteria.

After the recent spinach outbreak Lisa Brott told CBC news: "It's outrageous so many people are poisoned by food. A lot more has to be done, whatever it takes, to protect people's health."

Actually, it's not so much "outrageous," it's just what we can expect given how we expect our food to be produced and distributed, what we like to eat, how we like it cooked and how much we are willing to pay for it -- including the costs of advertising.

"When you consider 75 million Americans with food-borne illnesses each year," Senator Dick Durbin told CBS, "I do believe a better, more modern, streamlined agency would reduce those numbers. And it means that more people would survive."

Maybe Durbin's right, but the food chain causing those 75 million illnesses is already "modern" and "streamlined" in the most appalling ways. Maybe what we need more of is smaller-scale, localized, humane food production methods all along the way.

In July the US House of Representives voted overwhelmingly to pass what Grist reporter Tom Philpott described "a momentous, controversial plan to overhaul a large swath of the nation’s food-safety system." The scale of the problem -- and the problem as one of scale -- was revealed that very day by yet another outbreak, not meat but vegetable:

The vote comes amid yet another round of recalls. On Tuesday, the FDA announced the voluntary recall of 'one lot' of salmonella-tainted cilantro, distributed by a company called Frontera Produce.

The agency did not define how much cilantro makes up a lot, but it must be, well, a lot, because the 'lot' in question, 118122, was distributed to two retail store chains in Texas, Oklahoma, Colorado, Louisiana, and New Mexico,' the press release states.

Philpott points out that FDA said the company "routinely tested for contaminants as part of their internal food safety program," in this case AFTER the cilantro went out to 2 grocery chains in 5 states. What sort of routine is that?

Philpott says the new legislation will burden small scale producers much more heavily than giant distributors:

The legislation contains some important provisions for tightening up an absurdly porous food safety system: the FDA would no longer have to rely on 'voluntary' recalls but instead will itself have the power to recall tainted food. Moreover, inspections of food-production facilities will be stepped up.

But it also has aspects that would weigh heavily on small-scale farmers and food processors—ones that pose a fraction of the threat that big players pose, and are responsible for a fraction of the recalls, too. One is a $500 per-facility annual fee for processors to help offset the cost of inspections. Few dispute the FDA needs a larger budget; but $500 falls a lot heavier on someone who turns locally grown cabbage onto kraut for a farmers market than on a company that, say, makes 'peanut paste' for of the nation’s large-scale food corporations.

Philpott quotes an Iowa newspaper:

Farm-state lawmakers won several last-minute changes, including a provision exempting grain growers from new farming standards. Recordkeeping requirements for livestock farms were restricted. The pork industry kept out of the bill some proposed restrictions on antibiotic use.

In Philpott's opinion, big industries have gotten their fixes and exemptions written into the new bill, while small organic farmers are burdened with more onerous restrictions and fines. Consumers looking for truly healthier and more sustainable ways to eat will be the losers here. And the next Stephanie will still not be safe.

Sources and Related

VIDEO: TAINTED MEAT Stephanie Smith's reaction to a strain of E. coli was extreme, but neither the system meant to make meat safe, nor the meat itself, is what consumers have been led to believe.

E. Coli Path Shows Flaws in Ground Beef Inspection New York Times Sunday October 3 2009.

Anatomy of a Burger

Food Safety Documents

With House food-safety bill a done deal, questions remain. by Tom Philpotts, Grist.com

Food-safety legislation leaves gaping hole for meat giants Tom Philpotts

Food safety: How local can you go? by Robynn Shrader, Grist.com

The Center for Food Safety & True Food New http://truefoodnow.org/campaigns/

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