October 8, 2009

Broken Record Post: NY Times & Beef Safety

The hordes of LBoN readers (snicker, snicker) are familiar with the coverage this blog has given to the safety of one of our country's favorite foods, beef.

As was pointed out on a science journalism blog, just when you thought this territory had been well covered -- that is, that it has been fairly well established that there are some serious problems with beef safety, etc. -- the New York Times' Michael Moss one-ups everybody and rips off this doozy in last Sunday's paper.

It leads with the story of Stephanie Smith, who can no longer walk due to an infection with E. coli that she got from a hamburger. It turns out, Mr. Moss reports, that ground beef, whether it's in a nicely packaged mound or frozen pre-made patties, isn't necessarily always what you think it is...

Ground beef is usually not simply a chunk of meat run through a grinder. Instead, records and interviews show, a single portion of hamburger meat is often 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, food experts and officials say. Despite this, there is no federal requirement for grinders to test their ingredients for the pathogen.

The frozen hamburgers that the Smiths ate, which were made by the food giant Cargill, were labeled “American Chef’s Selection Angus Beef Patties.” Yet confidential grinding logs and other Cargill records show that the hamburgers were made from a mix of slaughterhouse trimmings and a mash-like product derived from scraps that were ground together at a plant in Wisconsin. The 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.

I particularly like that ammonia bit at the end. "Would you like fries with that? Oh, and we're running a special extra-value meal for burgers with extra ammonia. It's a real bargain, I tell you."

So, as I did once before, I'd like to come back to a letter to the editor (scroll down a bit) that came in reply to my op-ed on the subject of beef safety published in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette last year. The LTE came from Mr. William R. Henning, the Emeritus Professor of Animal and Food Science at Penn State University.

Penn State has come under criticism from some in the sustainable ag community because of its cozy relationship with the corporations that make up big ag. They have this one professor, Terry Etherton, who apparently believes that anybody who doesn't think pumping cows full of hormones is the be-all end-all of "progress" is anti-science and anti-agriculture. Nice, I know.

Keep that in mind when you read this bit from Mr. Henning's LTE: [NOTE: From this point forward, all bolded text is mine for emphasis]

I'm confident we have a very safe and affordable supply of this important protein. Strict and numerous government regulations along with strong industry leadership protect the safety of our beef.

And then a little later on in the LTE:

For example, each of the 100 million animals that enter the human food supply is closely inspected by veterinarians and trained inspectors. And the inspection system continues throughout the entire process, including careful examination of both raw and fully cooked products.

I tried to wrap my head around how 100 million animals could possibly be closely inspected, even if there was a fully stocked army of inspectors, which published reports have indicated there is not.

In any case, compare the LTE claims with this from the Times' article:

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.

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.

It's almost as if Mr. Moss and Mr. Henning are talking about two entirely different worlds, no? In any case, the article apparently caused enough of a ruckus to prompt a response from the Department of Agriculture, from Sec. Vilsack himself no less.

He talks about additional inspections, new guidelines, better record keeping. But something seemed to be missing: The fact that something can be labeled as ground beef and yet really be "a mix of slaughterhouse trimmings and a mash-like product derived from scraps that were ground together at a plant in Wisconsin."

Anyone else find that unnerving? Perhaps the "strong industry leadership" touted by Mr. Henning from our state's largest (only?) land-grant university will address that?

Right, right. Dumb question.

UPDATE: Speaking of Big Ag influence on land-grant universities, The Ethicurean provides a primo example, this time involving Michael Pollan.

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