November 5, 2007

The Beef Recalls Hit Close to Home

Ah, yes, it’s just not a good week any more unless there is a massive recall of some fine bovine. And this time, it’s infected our local grocery gargantuan, Giant Eagle.

Several hundred thousand pounds of ground beef sold at Giant Eagle outlets last month may be contaminated with potentially deadly bacteria, company officials announced Saturday.


The meat processor, Kansas-based Cargill Meat Solutions Corp., announced a voluntary 10-state recall yesterday of more than 1 million pounds of possibly tainted ground meat, the second time in less than a month that Cargill voluntarily recalled suspect beef.

Cargill, of course, is an Agribusiness monstrosity. Reportedly there are no sicknesses that launched the recall. It came about as a result of testing.

Giant Eagle spokesman Rob Borella said that ground beef products now on the company's shelves are safe.

Borella said the affected products would have been found in the self-service counters, not at the butcher's counter.

In fact, most of the recalled beef came in the form of pre-made patties—pre-made by the “manufacturer.” The same was the case with the 22 million pounds of beef recalled in late September/early October by the now-defunct Topps Meat Co. UPDATE: Apparently the recall isn't yet quite complete:

State inspectors said Wednesday they have found more boxes of potentially tainted meat on store shelves more than a month after a nationwide recall of Topps frozen hamburgers.

Over the past few weeks, 141 boxes of Topps burgers have been found at 12 stores, all in northern New Jersey except for one in Gloucester City in Camden County, the state Division of Consumer Affairs said.

We do purchase some beef and chicken at Giant Eagle. In the last year, the majority of the pork we eat has come from a local farm, Wil-Den Family Farms. When we do buy any type of meat at Giant Eagle, it’s always the “Nature’s Basket” brand, which is advertised in pamphlets at the store as hormone-free, antibiotic-free and fed an all-vegetarian diet, which can include both grass and grains.

I called Giant Eagle to see if the Nature’s Basket branded beef is processed in the same Cargill facilities as the recalled beef. I was told by a Giant Eagle representative that it was not. The representative went on to explain that:

  • The Nature’s Basket beef all comes from farms in Kansas operated under the name of Star Ranch. These farms used to be operated by a former powerhouse of the beef industry, IBP Inc., but that company was swallowed up by another Agribusiness giant, Tyson, in 2001. [Interestingly enough, Tyson tried to back out of its purchase of IBP and was sued by the company, a lawsuit IBP won, meaning Tyson had to complete the purchase. Tyson officials later were sued by IBP, with IBP saying Tyson executives had lied about why they tried to back out of the deal. Tyson won that case.]
  • There is no intermingling of these “natural” cattle and more traditionally raised cattle during processing -- they are processed on separate lines.

Some more digging shows that Tyson added this line of “Natural” meats in January 2006. Not long after, if my memory is correct, the Nature’s Basket beef started showing up in our local Giant Eagle, displacing the Coleman “natural” beef products.

I was talking with my wife about the recall and she said, “Why do you think all of these recalls are happening now?” And it seems safe to conclude that we’ve reached a tipping point in this country when it comes to protecting public health in general, whether it be food or toys or the environment.

The current administration does not believe in regulation and has been slowly tearing apart federal regulatory bodies of all sorts, appointing former industry people to head regulatory agencies that oversee the industries from which the appointees came. It’s gotten to the point where the head of the Consumer Product Safety Commission—which is tasked with overseeing the safety of things like toys, you know, those ones lovingly coated with all of that lead paint—pleaded with Congress to vote down legislation that would have given the CPSC more money, authority, and inspection staff!

While I am somewhat reassured by what I learned about the Nature’s Basket products at Giant Eagle, it’s hard not to be concerned about any beef coming from a large USDA-inspected facility, particularly those run by the industry giants. After all, it took the USDA 18 days – that’s right nearly 3 weeks – to decide that the aforementioned Topps should announce a recall of potentially E. coli tainted frozen beef patties. Again, Topps, until it folded up shop last month, was one of the largest beef suppliers in the country.

And then there are the recent reports about overworked, understaffed USDA meat inspectors.

USDA inspectors visit about 6,000 food-production facilities, but some are so large that they require several inspectors. From April to June of this year, inspectors examined 34 million "livestock carcasses" and condemned 54,546 of them, according to FSIS records. For poultry, the numbers jump to an astounding 2.3 billion carcasses inspected and 11 million condemned animals. …

The legal requirements for inspections, combined with a reduced force, mean that the inspection goals have not been met for years, according to inspectors. They say the workload is unrealistic, reducing their duties to cursory checks of company records, not the physical examination of meat, poultry and eggs.

Well, it’s all a bit worrisome, eh? Here’s probably a good new rule of thumb to be taken away from these recalls – you’re at a picnic or somebody’s house and you see some thin, perfectly shaped burgers on the grill, pretend you’re on a diet. Otherwise, you might get a cheeseburger with bacon, lettuce, tomato, and just a hint of deadly bacteria.


susan said...

I wonder whether or not the food supply will continue down this worrisome road or if it, like many other things, will be a pendulum that will swing toward a healthier direction. It seems that the only assurance we may have about the food that we eat is to grow/raise it ourselves.....How much is a farm going for these days and will the children and grandchildren be interested in living/working there???

Fillippelli the Cook said...

Don't think we have to grow/raise it ourselves, just get the government to help the little farmers who are doing it right and stop the corporate welfare for the big agribusinesses. If you give the little guy a chance to compete on level playing field, I believe the food safety and quality situation would change dramatically in just a number of years.