November 3, 2007

red meat

OK, there've been two meat recalls this week, one for tainted beef (over a million pounds from Cargill) and one for frozen pizzas with pepperoni. The pizzas have caused illness so far, the beef not. This is a ridiculous problem, because it's totally avoidable and absurdly common.

E. coli contamination: totally avoidable. No reason it should ever happen. All the types of E. coli that cause illness not only live in cowshit, but also only live in the feces of cows who eat corn, not cows who eat grass. A corn diet turns a cow's rumen acidic - it's supposed to be about neutral - and makes the digestive system a hospitable place for illness-causing E. coli. The strains of E. coli that make you sick literally can't survive in a cow that's eating grass, which is what cows' digestive systems are adapted to.

So of course almost all beef is raised on corn.

Beyond that, notice that the Cargill plant that produced the tainted beef produces 200 million pounds of ground beef a year. That's a huge amount. The recall applies to 1 million pounds, also a huge amount. Notice also that Cargill is "working closely with the USDA" - that's because even though every meat plant has to be USDA inspected, the USDA has no authority to issue a recall, no authority to order product destroyed. Instead, their authority is only to close a plant, which they are under enormous pressure not to do. Because plants are so enormous, a shutdown becomes a huge loss to a company; also because plants are so enormous, a single piece of contaminated meat immediately gets ground up with all the other meat, contaminating the rest of it. But any USDA inspected plant has to have facilities (including a private office and separate bathroom) for an inspector - a legitimate need, considering the threats USDA inspectors have gotten, but one that weighs heaviest on small plants; the USDA has even told a few small slaughterhouses that they were too small for the USDA to bother inspecting, effectively shutting them down. It's a major barrier to small, local, quality meat, which you can read a lot more about in Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma or this New York Times article about the Farmers Diner.

The way the USDA treats meat and contamination is also pretty interesting. I've been told by sources I can't cite that plants often understate the fecal contamination of their products by as much as 90%. My parents run a small business making prosciutto in a traditional Italian style: when my father went to Italy to learn about it, he learned that in Italy the slaughterhouse is responsible for delivering clean meat to the prosciutto maker; here, the prosciutto maker is required to treat the meat as completely contaminated and guarantee that the curing process kills any pathogens. I don't know which of those is a better system from a public health standpoint, but they say something about what the slaughterhouses in the two countries are probably like, and about the availability of alternatives.

And yet we keep treating food poisoning and contaminated meat on a grand scale as inevitable.


Abramorous said...

ok, question. e. coli, and a whole host of other problems associated with corn-fed beef and cattle raised in Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, are clearly not going to be problems with grass-fed beef from small local farms. i'm wondering, though, if there are actually health risks that the industrial process addresses more effectively than small farms, and we just don't know about these problems, because individual incidents don't become national problems. i'm sure the balance favors small farms with grass-fed beef -- i'm just wondering about the other side of the equation.

Laurel said...

This according to the Gardener: "With plants, you sometimes have to deal with a higher level of disease in your plants, but the plants are healthier for you, because they have to fight their own battles and so they produce more - there's a name for it, but I can't remember what it is.

"The biggest thing with food is how long it's been in storage. That's one of the biggest issues with nutrients, because a lot of those oils are really volatile.

"Why are you writing your blog when you need to be writing your paper and doing your grading for tomorrow?"

She also points out that the USDA requirements for small facilities are really intense (see also my parents' experience) and that in a small operation everything's going to be visible to inspectors. Obviously there are dirty, poorly-run family farms, but "The goal is to know the farmer, and trust them. That is the best way to get food that is good quality and clean and healthy." Which is why I love Seven Stars so much.

The only fairly recent industrial thing I know of that's good for health is pasteurization, and some people dispute its benefits because it destroys a lot of nutrients; it also destroys tuberculosis, but if you have a really spotlessly clean farm with good monitoring you might not need it. I drink raw milk without knowing the farmer, but only because I trust the Farmstand.

In reality, I'm not sure there is another side to speak of.