Sunday, October 4, 2009

Beware: Poo On Your Meat

Since I am a pescetarian (a vegetarian who abstains from eating all meat with the exclusion of seafood), I luckily don't have to worry about what's going into my hamburgers. My "hamburgers" usually consist of beans or soy products that aren't as likely to be contaminated with harmful bacteria such as E. Coli. (Interested in trying a good meatless burger? Try Flame-Grilled Boca Burgers. Boca's breakfast 'sausage' links are also really tasty.)

However, for those of you who do occasionally indulge in a hamburger, you may want to beware of what you're ingesting. While I certainly don't condone those who eat meat, nonvegetarians definitely need to be more careful when it comes to handling and purchasing foods. The New York Times, recently published an article that exposed the meat industry in their process of making hamburger meat. What the article had to say wasn't all that pretty...

The article was a little lengthy, so I'm going to highlight some of the important and of interest points, much of which could be of concern to any meat-eater.

The NY Times constructed the article around Stephanie Smith, a woman who ingested a burger containing E. Coli and as a result is now paralyzed from the waist down. Doctors also say that her kidneys are at a high risk of failing. The human body contains two kidneys that work to remove waste from the blood of which is then transported out of the body when we urinate. Kidney failur can cause longer term disability or even death. One kidney must remain functional in order to survive. Doctors say that most likely Ms. Smith won't ever be able to walk again.

According to the NY Times, most patients are able to recover from E. Coli toxification. However, in the worst cases such as Smith's, the bacteria can penetrate the colon wall, damaging blood vessels and causing clots which can lead to seizures. The seizures can be so intense that they can inhibit the brain from properly function for periods of a time. Even in less severe cases, patients are almost always sure to become sick. According to WebMD, ingestion of E. Coli O157:H7, the strain that causes food-borne illnesses, will cause symptoms such as severe stomach cramps, nausea, vomitting, and diahrrea. If the illness doesn't reach a severe stage, symptoms will generally last for about a week or so.

So how is E. Coli getting into market-sold products? The NY Times did a large examination of the meat industry to try and answer this question. They found that hamburger meat sold at the supermarket is almost always a blend of different grades of meat from various parts of the cow, coming from numerous slaughterhouses. Food experts say that the cuts of meat used are particularly vulnerable to E. Coli contamination. Cargrill, the company that processed the meat of which contaminated Ms. Smith, used a large blend of meats which allowed them to spend 25% less than if they used cuts of whole meats. While they may have initially saved some money, this ensued several multi-million dollar claims by some of the people who got sick.

The ingredients Cargrill used came from slaughterhouses ranging from places like Nebraska, Texas, South Dakaota, and all the down to to Urugway. The largest and cheapest component used in making ground hamburger meat is beef trimmings, which contain 50% fat, 50% meat. The article stated that in large grocery store chains such as Publix Super Markets, in order for customers who want to make a hamburger from meat obtained from whole-cuts, they'd have to purchase a steak and have it specially ground, said a Publix spokesperson.

The low-grade meat trimmings are cut from areas of the cow that are more likely to be contaminated by feces (Poo). The cattle in slaughterhouses are often smeared with traces of feces that harbor E. Coli. In order to keep the feces from contaminating the meat, the cattles' hides, which are particularly close to the outer trimmings obtained from the outer surfaces of the carcasses, must be very carefully removed. This can easily be slipped up, as the large clamps holding the hide often slip and smear feces onto the meat. Also, it's easy for workers to unintentionally spread feces to the meat they are handling as they quickly and often unmindfully slice away the hides. Inspectors have said that E. Coli are also particularly present at the intestines gutting stations within slaugtherhouses.

And while slaughterhouses and meat processing plants can't quite be compared to the conditions of extreme squalor described in Upton Sinclair's The Jungle, the environment is by far still not adequately clean and pristine. Inspectors at Cargrill found large amounts of meat patties thrown on the floor, old bits of meat hanging of meat grinders, and workers dumping indedible meat on the floors beneath production lines. None of this speaks of healthy sanitation to me.

The NY Times reported a survey taken by the Agriculture Department of more than 2,000 plants that taken after the Cargill outbreak. The survey showed that half of the grinders did not test their finished ground beef for E. coli, and a measly 6 percent said they tested incoming ingredients at a very measly least amount of four times a year.

While there is no federal requirement for grinders to test their ingredients for E. Coli, a lot of companies do set their own standards and testing. However, many companies such as Cargrill, don't even follow their own safety programs, the same ones they made. The reason that federal requirements haven't been made is because industry officials claim that the cost of testing could unfairly burden small processors and that slaughterhouses where the meat is purchased already test for the pathogen. However, meat is a delicate food when it comes to bacteria growth. You would think that it would be more important for thorough standards to be set so that vicitims such as Ms. Smith wouldn't have to worry about what they're buying or eating from the grocery store.

A direct quote taken from the NY Times article stated this: "Dr. Kenneth Petersen, an assistant administrator with the department’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, said that the department could mandate testing, but that it needed to consider the impact on companies as well as consumers. “I have to look at the entire industry, not just what is best for public health,” Dr. Petersen said."

Isn't public health more important than the industry's financial gain? Without health, money means nothing. And clearly, being sued for multi-millions isn't doing much for companies in terms of finance.

To make matters worse, many slaugtherhouses won't sell to grinders who test their meat. Slaughterhouses fear that one grinder’s discovery of E. coli will set off a recall of ingredients they sold to others. So basically, they don't care if they are selling contaminated meat and harming customers as long as they can continue selling their products. Taken from the Times article: The food safety officer at American Foodservice, which grinds 365 million pounds of hamburger a year, said it stopped testing trimmings a decade ago because of resistance from slaughterhouses. “They would not sell to us,” said Timothy P. Biela, the officer.

These cases don't help to cast capitalism in a good light. Workers at Greater Omaha, another meat processing company, filed a suit against the company saying that they weren't getting paid for the time they spent cleaning contaminants off their knives and other gear. Greater Omaha is contesting the suit...but if this is true, most likely workers aren't paying attention to the details of cleaning their utensils, meaning bacteria is probably left to reside on them.

The Times found that even the safe handling instructions of meat can not enough fully prevent the bacteria of meat from spreading in the kitchen. The E. Coli pathogen is so powerful that it can cause illness from just a few cells left on a counter. “In a warm kitchen, E. coli cells will double every 45 minutes,” said Dr. Mansour Samadpour, a microbiologist who runs IEH Laboratories in Seattle, one of the meat industry’s largest testing firms.

While companies treat their fatty trimmings with ammonia, yes, ammonia, it is often still not enough to prevent E. Coli contamination. The bottom line is this: Be weary when buying any meat, especially meat that is highly processed. It's generally best to get meat from a local butcher of whom you can get to know. Also, free-ranged, organic meat is generally safer and prevents less animal cruelty living conditions. While it may cost you a few extra bucks, the money is worth your health and your conscious.

Here's my only vegetarian pitch...If you're going to eat meat, maybe try consuming a little less of it. Especially if you have you're own garden, you don't have to worry quite as much when you're cooking up simple, unprocessed veggies and beans. Stick to the basics and your mind and health is generally worry-free.

To read the whole NY Times article, go to:

No comments:

Post a Comment