Thursday, October 15, 2009

Food safety: asleep at the wheel

In a recent article in the New York Times, I read about a woman who was permanently paralyzed as a result of her exposure to E. coli-tainted ground beef. Now, I've written a few times about my ongoing internal debate about eating meat. This piece, along with the cover story from a recent issue of TIME magazine, seem to confirm what Eric Schlosser and others have been warning us about for years: you just can't trust large-scale food processors. With the huge amount of money at stake, public safety is, at best, an afterthought for the food industry.

Part of the problem is the sheer scale of mass food production and processing: it's difficult and sometimes costly to sufficiently test it for contamination. According to the Times piece, "Testing has been a point of contention since the 1994 ban on selling ground beef contaminated with E. coli O157:H7 was imposed. The department moved to require some bacterial testing of ground beef, but the industry argued that the cost would unfairly burden small producers, industry officials said." Oh, please. Like industry officials can even name five small farms that they deal with (unless they're trying to shut them down). How about, oh, I don't know, having the processing plants do the testing before they grind everything together beyond recognition?

Global sourcing of raw materials which are mingled before most tests are run further complicates the ability of inspectors to pinpoint the origins of contamination and subsequently halt its inclusion in the mix. I am not against national and global trade, mind you, but does my beef fat need to come from Uruguay? No. Unless I want a fatty burger and happen to *be* in Uruguay (which I hear is nice this time of year).

"I have to look at the entire industry, not just what is best for public health," claimed an industry rep in response to a call for more robust food safety practices following the E. coli incident. Herein lies the crux of the problem: greed. And there is a fairly simple solution to the problem: relationships. Know your farmer, know where your meat comes from, and stop supporting the food giants (who don't care about your health) with your food dollars. If you want ground beef, it's better to buy directly from smaller local farms and grind it yourself, or at least find a responsible butcher to do it (sans imported South American beef fat).

I don't know that I'll be able to eat a hamburger for awhile. Nevermind that cookout season came to abrupt end with midwestern temperatures in the low 40s for the past week. The burgers pictured here at the UW Slow Food dinner a few weeks ago, with meat direct from nearby Fountain Prairie Farm, were pretty delicious, though....

Sent from my Verizon Wireless BlackBerry


  1. I remember the ground beef ban in 1994 because of e-coli burgers at Jack-in-the-Box. One of the restaurants where people died from E-coli was less than a mile from my house. And my parents were always so dismayed that I refused to eat fast-food hamburgers for my entire childhood! (for different reasons of course, as if I knew what E-coli was when I was seven)

  2. I can't remember the last time I had ground beef-but its basically for the same reasons you've written, its been nothing but venison and deer hunting season starts too.


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