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Where’s the E. coli? In the beef

October 7th, 2009

By Barbara Kessler
Green Right Now

We make cows sick. Then we eat them. And they make us sick.

That’s the very short version of the industrialized beef program we’re living with right now. Has a certain terrible symmetry doesn’t it? And by abridging the story, I don’t mean to make light of the situation, only to highlight the obvious stupidity of it.

By now, if you’ve seen the movie Food, Inc., or read or viewed any of a dozen reports (here’s just one) on the problems of mass-produced beef, you know what I’m talking about. We’ve taken a grass-eating animal and, in the interest of quickly fattening it for slaughter, turned it into a grain-fed animal that is packed it into feedlots. And in so doing, we have produced beef that’s fatter than ever, full of antibiotics, pesticides and growth hormones — and created an E. coli factory.

Let’s focus on the immediate safety hazard.

A cow’s digestion system naturally contains E. coli, but it is becoming more virulent under this accelerated growth plan.

Send this beef into an industrial system that’s churning out millions of pounds of hamburger 24/7 and you’re stacking the odds toward contamination.

The hides of cattle held in Concentrated Agricultural Feeding Operations (CAFOs) are often smeared with feces that carry bacteria. They’re literally walking around with a potential pathogen that must be power-washed off before slaughter. Another point of vulnerability occurs when their intestines are separated, and sometimes severed, on fast-moving conveyor belts, spilling bacteria.

Picture a factory where profits run roughshod over safety and labor concerns…or just re-read Upton Sinclair’s century-old The Jungle.

Modern meat manufacturers would say that’s an unfair characterization because sanitation methods today are much improved.

Still, the meat engine has become an octopus under globalization, and pressures to meet certain price points have produced a system that skirts scrutiny.

The New York Times this week detailed the story of how a single hamburger sickened one woman and left her paralyzed. Records showed that the burger was made from a mash of beef that came from slaughterhouses in Nebraska, Texas, Uruguay and a South Dakota company that processes fat trimmings and treats them with ammonia to kill bacteria.

How is that even possible? And where’s the efficiency in producing a hamburger made from so many distant parts? Apparently, it is common practice in the beef industry to buy scraps of beef and fat trimmings from various sources to trim the cost of making hamburger.

The NYT piece by Michael Moss, entitled E. Coli Path Shows Flaws in Beef Inspection, exposes how the monolithic industry churns out hamburger under ineffective or absent oversight. The contaminated burger was sold with the label “American Chef’s Selection Angus Beef Patties” and yet, deriving the meat from premium Angus cattle seemed to be a small and possibly non-existent part of the process.

The report uncovered other frightening practices, showing that in some instances beef manufacturers evade hamburger grinding facilities that test for E coli for fear of triggering an expensive recall. It quotes one safety expert who doesn’t mince words: “Ground beef is not a completely safe product.”

This piece is straightforward and its warning clear: Consumer, beware of what you’re eating.

There are alternatives that are greener, cleaner and less resource-intensive:

  • Eat solid cuts of beef from grass-fed cattle that are raised locally. This should improve your odds of avoiding an E coli illness.  It will definitely lower the carbon imprint of the product. Buy from a rancher or a butcher who can tell you about the beef you’re buying. Consider the higher price part of the “insurance” cost of eating more safely.
  • Try grass-fed buffalo. It’s even higher in Omega oils than grass-fed beef and leaner. But stick to solid cuts.
  • Replace a few meat-based meals with stir fry dishes or recipes based on legumes. It won’t hurt your health and by eating lower on the food chain, you’ll be reducing your carbon imprint. Visit Meatless Monday to learn more and find recipes.

Yes, other foods can be contaminated with E. coli bacteria, or salmonella and other contaminants. But hamburger tops the list.

Copyright © 2009 Green Right Now | Distributed by Noofangle Media



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