The New York Times published a very important article this past Sunday about the state of meat inspection in the US. They put it on the front page, and it belongs there. The piece is real, old-fashioned investigative journalism, including lots of detail and citing multiple named sources. Kudos to author Michael Moss, who must have been working on this for months.
In summary, the article tells the story of Stephanie Smith, a 22 year old children’s dance instructor, who became infected with E. coli after eating a frozen hamburger made by industrial food giant Cargill and suffered severe complications leaving her brain damaged and paralyzed from the waist down. The article traces the provenance of the pre-made hamburger patty she ate showing that the meat it contained came from four different sources. Moss’s piece also reveals a shoddy patchwork of food safety regulations, enforced only loosely by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), which make it impossible for Cargill to determine which of the four sources was contaminated.
Here are a couple of extracts from the article which highlight some important points, but please do go and read the whole thing:
In all, the ingredients for Ms. Smith’s burger cost Cargill about $1 a pound, company records show, or about 30 cents less than industry experts say it would cost for ground beef made from whole cuts of meat.
As mentioned above, the meat in Ms. Smith’s burger came from four different sources. If these burgers were made from whole cuts of meat it would be much easier to track and test the meat. I, for one, would happily pay 30 cents more per pound for hamburger patties if it meant knowing that my risk of becoming infected with E. coli was significantly diminished. Yes, it would probably wind up being more than 30 cents, after retail markups, etc. but even if that meant that meat became less affordable to me, I see it as a good thing. One of the reasons most Americans currently eat too much meat damaging both their health and the environment is that it is too cheap. If it cost more, we would eat less.
The meat industry treats much of its practices and the ingredients in ground beef as trade secrets. While the Department of Agriculture has inspectors posted in plants and has access to production records, it also guards those secrets. Federal records released by the department through the Freedom of Information Act blacked out details of Cargill’s grinding operation that could be learned only through copies of the documents obtained from other sources. Those documents illustrate the restrained approach to enforcement by a department whose missions include ensuring meat safety and promoting agriculture markets.
Trade secrets are exempt from the Freedom of Information Act, however, is it really the USDA’s job to protect those trade secrets when they cause severe illness and death among the population? In the article, Moss zeros in on the heart of the problem, pointing out that the USDA’s mission includes both food safety and promoting agricultural markets which causes inherent conflict of interest. It’s fine to have a government agency whose mission it is to promote American agricultural products but it shouldn’t be the same agency whose task it is to protect Americans from dangerous food processing techniques.
Update: In this follow up article Michael Moss reports that Costco has come to an agreement which will allow it to test the beef trimmings it buys from Tyson for E. coli before the trimmings are mixed with those purchased from other sources. Costco is one of the few meat grinders who test the scraps before they are combined (as is recommended by the USDA!) and up until now Tyson refused to allow them to test, so they didn’t buy meat from them.
Oh, and Cargill has changed nothing since the original article came out. They just have their PR droids driveling about how “Over the past 10 years, Cargill has invested $1 billion in ongoing meat science research and new food safety technologies and interventions.”