Mystery meat.

I may have to take it all back, Michael Pollan. This very very long, very very stomach-turning New York Times piece is worth every minute it takes to read, and urp you stifle in response.

The story is about how one 22-year-old woman was left paralyzed and brain-damaged by e.coli, after eating a single hamburger made in a factory, from meat processed in a factory. The nut graf, simple and heartbreaking:

“I ask myself every day, ‘Why me?’ and ‘Why from a hamburger?’ ”Ms. Smith said. In the simplest terms, she ran out of luck in a food-safety game of chance whose rules and risks are not widely known.

In the next several thousand words, Times reporter Michael Moss attempts to trace precisely what happened to contaminate this burger with one of the most virulent strains of e.coli bacteria. That’s the stomach-churning part. It’s also infuriating, as you see how one industry, in pursuit of what we’ve been taught is the holy market’s greatest accomplishment (efficiency and cost savings), puts millions of Americans at deadly risk. I’m going to break my three-paragraph limit on quoting others’ work to pull out this one passage, which details only part of the problem, but does it fairly succinctly:

On Aug. 16, 2007, the day Ms. Smith’s hamburger was made, the No.3 grinder at the Cargill plant in Butler, Wis., started up at 6:50 a.m. The largest ingredient was beef trimmings known as “50/50” — half fat, half meat — that cost about 60 cents a pound, making them the cheapest component.

Cargill bought these trimmings — fatty edges sliced from better cuts of meat — from Greater Omaha Packing, where some 2,600 cattle are slaughtered daily and processed in a plant the size of four football fields.

As with other slaughterhouses, the potential for contamination is present every step of the way, according to workers and federal inspectors. The cattle often arrive with smears of feedlot feces that harbor the E. coli pathogen, and the hide must be removed carefully to keep it off the meat. This is especially critical for trimmings sliced from the outer surface of the carcass.

Federal inspectors based at the plant are supposed to monitor the hide removal, but much can go wrong. Workers slicing away the hide can inadvertently spread feces to the meat, and large clamps that hold the hide during processing sometimes slip and smear the meat with feces, the workers and inspectors say.

Greater Omaha vacuums and washes carcasses with hot water and lactic acid before sending them to the cutting floor. But these safeguards are not foolproof.

“As the trimmings are going down the processing line into combos or boxes, no one is inspecting every single piece,” said one federal inspector who monitored Greater Omaha and requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly.

The E. coli risk is also present at the gutting station, where intestines are removed, the inspector said

Every five seconds or so, half of a carcass moves into the meat-cutting side of the slaughterhouse, where trimmers said they could keep up with the flow unless they spot any remaining feces.

“We would step in and stop the line, and do whatever you do to take it off,” said Esley Adams, a former supervisor who said he was fired this summer after 16 years following a dispute over sick leave. “But that doesn’t mean everything was caught.”

Two current employees said the flow of carcasses keeps up its torrid pace even when trimmers get reassigned, which increases pressure on workers. To protest one such episode, the employees said, dozens of workers walked off the job for a few hours earlier this year. Last year, workers sued Greater Omaha, alleging that they were not paid for the time they need to clean contaminants off their knives and other gear before and after their shifts. The company is contesting the lawsuit.

And this is only one part of the process; the same batch also contained trimmings imported from Uruguay, and let me see the hands of everybody who feels hunky-dory about that. The picture that emerges is one of true mystery meat, a vile concoction of things you really don’t want to think about, which you then have the responsibility to cook to a safe temperature, only oops, umm…

In the wake of the outbreak, the U.S.D.A. reminded consumers on its Web site that hamburgers had to be cooked to 160 degrees to be sure any E. coli is killed and urged them to use a thermometer to check the temperature. This reinforced Sharon Smith’s concern that she had sickened her daughter by not cooking the hamburger thoroughly.

But the pathogen is so powerful that her illness could have started with 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.

With help from his laboratories, The Times prepared three pounds of ground beef dosed with a strain of E. coli that is nonharmful but acts in many ways like O157:H7. Although the safety instructions on the package were followed, E. coli remained on the cutting board even after it was washed with soap. A towel picked up large amounts of bacteria from the meat.

Here’s the problem: Into every modern American life, some processed food must fall. We might try mightily to hew to the straight, narrow, organic and local, but sooner or later you’re going to be served a restaurant meal that doesn’t draw its raw materials from the Niman Ranch, or your child is going to have to eat the school lunch for one reason or another, or you just aren’t going to have the energy to burn a cord of wood to make a couple of eggs (as Anthony Bourdain amusingly summed up Alice Waters’ breakfast for Lesley Stahl on “60 Minutes.”). And goddamnit, but it is the government’s job to make sure food-processing facilities are as safe as can be, and are producing meat that doesn’t have to be handled like toxic waste. (If I hear one more industry dipshit telling me I need to clean my cutting boards with bleach, I’m going to throw one at their heads.) We’ve clearly seen — sorry, libertarians — that “market forces” aren’t going to shape up the various factory-food industries alone, at least not until we have a plague of paralyzed 22-year-olds, or something. The USDA comes across almost as badly as Cargill and the vast Omaha beef processors who put this poison into American supermarkets. Seizure, forced shutdowns, and a few corporate executives doing a perp walk in handcuffs — that’s what it’s going to take. (Although, based on what we’ve seen, or not seen, on Wall Street in the past year, I’m not holding my breath.)

If nothing else, it settles things once and for all: No more supermarket ground beef for this family, and I’m redeeming some of my Amazon kickback bucks for the meat-grinding attachment for my KitchenAid mixer. (Someone in our group, I think MichaelG, swears by his, but any ideas about getting the best meat-to-fat ratio are welcome.) I intend to remain an omnivore. But I’m no longer trusting my health to an industry that considers the time it takes to wash shit off the slaughterhouse knives wasted time.

I was going to call this post “Eat shit and die,” but I know some of you read this at work, so you’ll just have to enjoy it down in the text.

So how is everyone’s week starting? Hamburgers for lunch? Didn’t think so.

Posted at 8:44 am in Current events |

75 responses to “Mystery meat.”

  1. coozledad said on October 5, 2009 at 9:26 am

    My relatives who raised beef cattle knew where you could dump rheumy headed cattle, or cattle with scours to be processed into ground beef. They always said buyers from the fast food chains would buy just about anything. I have to qualify this by saying my relatives who raised beef cattle were not particularly trustworthy, and beef raised in the southeastern US is only a marginal portion of the market.
    It is a little disturbing to note that people scarcely able to read product labeling are administering doses of terramycin, tetracyclene, penicillin G, and hormones to eke out a few extra pounds at slaughter. There are also a few tricks that add a few pounds at the processing scale, like feeding concrete or brick dust, or chicken guano (“Anatomy of a Cheeseburger”, Jeremy Rifkin, Granta 38). I think the problem of antibiotics entering the water table is the biggest concern, but there are some other things I’ve learned about ruminant behavior, like certain bloodlines’ genetic predisposition to recurrent infections, and the strange tendency of cattle to consume virtually anything, including stray pieces of hardware, and (a real shocker for me) carrion. The first time I saw my cows gnawing on a dead deer I felt I’d failed as a parent.

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  2. Julie Robinson said on October 5, 2009 at 9:29 am

    Ewwww. The DH worked at a local meat shop during high school and the stories he can tell will chill your spine (never, never buy the ham loaf). But you don’t need the grinder if your food processor has a powerful motor; just buy some chuck steak and chop away.

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  3. nancy said on October 5, 2009 at 9:31 am

    Yes, I regret ever learning the meaning of the term “baloney bull,” as well as “downer cows.” A colleague reporting a story from farm country came back to the office pale-faced, and passed along the farmer’s advice not to eat the product of a certain third-tier fast-food chain, which was an avid buyer of just those specimens. I was never a customer, but now I avoid nearly all of them. But there are times when I’m traveling, hurrying or otherwise in a bind, when I’ll avail myself of a drive-thru window. What am I doing? Just improving my odds?

    Oh, and Cooze — one of the best passages in that story was about the processors’ diligence in cracking down on suppliers who didn’t police foreign objects closely enough, and sent metal or other equipment-damaging objects into the grinders. If it’s soft and mushy they’re cool with just about anything, but if it costs them money? Eh. Also shocking were the revelations of certain processors who would simply not sell to a more diligent (i.e. fond of testing) customer like Costco, rather than do it themselves. Chilling.

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  4. Jeff (the mild-mannered one) said on October 5, 2009 at 10:01 am

    I miss steak tartare. Used to mix up minced onions, mustard, raw ground beef, eat it on a bun. Mmmmm. Don’t make that any more.

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  5. mark said on October 5, 2009 at 10:04 am

    By all means, make your own ground beef if you choose. But one e-coli death is hardly a good reason to give up the supermarket version, by-pass McDonalds or indict the free-market. The risk of death by e-coli in this country is so infinitesimal it’s hardly worth contemplating. The issues cooz raises are, I think, far more alarming, but they have nothing to do with e-coli. Millions of Americams are not “at deadly risk.”

    You want meat that “doesn’t have to be handled like toxic waste”? Then you don’t want meat. Cows (and chickens, pigs, etc.) produce and temporarily store shit, and they don’t line up for a thirty day colonic treatment before entering the slaughterhouse. The shit is toxic and the rest of a decaying carcass will become toxic pretty quickly. Wishing that the stools in your home weren’t toxic waste diposal devices won’t turn them into water fountains.

    E-coli makes lots of people sick because it is ever-present and toxic. Swimming pools, public restrooms, the unsupervised “wiping” of millions of little asses in public schools, etc. But unless you have a compromised or not yet developed immune system, no big deal. Fifty to a hundred die in the US each year from all e-coli exposure. Almost all of them are very young or very old. Wash your hands and bleach the cutting board are more important and more realistic steps than tripling the cost of meat-packing.

    Freeze the ground beef if you’re scared. McDonalds does. Problem solved.

    Your call out for the best meat to fat ratio is inadvertently funny. The desire for the “best ratio” is exactly why lean trimming from all over the world are brought here to make ground beef. Once the more valuable cuts are removed from the beef cattle, there’s not enough lean beef left to make a ratio that will impress your neighbors without you having to spend more for ground chuck or ground sirloin (the other options that pesky free market gives us). So lean trimmings from bulls and foreign beef are added to give you the “best” ratio.

    And you don’t want to ever travel overseas. Shit is still the number one fertilizer in much of the world.

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  6. nancy said on October 5, 2009 at 10:06 am

    Steak tartare shouldn’t be made with “ground beef,” Jeff. You use beef tenderloin, at $20 a pound. No wonder you don’t eat it anymore.

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  7. mark said on October 5, 2009 at 10:08 am


    Don’t use ground beef and you don’t need to deprive yourself. Factory grinding of scrap beef is where the shit gets introduced. Buy a filet, wash it off if you’re a worrier, and grind or chop away.

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  8. MichaelG said on October 5, 2009 at 10:30 am

    I’ve been grinding burgers for years. They are fresh, juicy and taste excellent. Also I know what I’m eating. It’s easier than one might think. I like chuck or beef short ribs. I buy what’s on sale at the used meat counter for 30 to 50% off. You have to use or freeze this stuff right away. Cut the meat in 3/4 inch pieces and put it in the freezer for an hour or so. Also stick your grinder in the freezer for an hour or so. The cold and stiffness makes for a much easier grind. I use the larger die of the two supplied. You can also season the meat after cutting but before grinding. I use a scale to measure out 1/3 lb balls and freeze what I don’t eat. Don’t make too much of forming a patty or you will ruin the burger – it’ll be dense and cardboard tasting. I make a loose ball and smash it on the surface of the pan. Let it cook for a bit and turn it. Burgers done this way cook faster than store bought grinds and boy, are they good. You’ll see after a little experimenting.

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  9. mark said on October 5, 2009 at 10:40 am


    “Used meat counter”. I’m a regular there, too, and call it by the same name. Even I freeze the ground beef I get there before using.

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  10. KLG said on October 5, 2009 at 10:58 am

    Excellent post, Nancy. The story gave me the willies, too.

    “Freeze the ground beef if you’re scared. McDon­alds does. Prob­lem solved.”

    Freezing will not necessarily kill all of the bacteria in a sample. Period. Just ask a molecular biologist, who freezes bacterial strains (mostly E. coli) all the time for long term storage. Granted, this is done at a low temperature, compared to that of a home freezer, in a culture medium that contains a cryoprotectant (kind of like what you might find in the middle of a pound of ground “beef”) but even if freezing kills 99.9% of the bacteria in a sample, that will leave 1000 out of 1,000,000 (which is not a particularly large number of individual bacteria) ready and able to wreak havoc.

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  11. David C said on October 5, 2009 at 11:01 am


    Don’t depend on freezing to kill e-coli. It stops the bacterial growth, but once the meat is thawed, it resumes right where it left off.

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  12. mark said on October 5, 2009 at 11:03 am


    Point taken. But other than banning the consumption of meat, what procedure would you introduce to the meat-packing, hamburger-grinding process that would have the same or greater efficacy in preventing e-coli illness?

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  13. moe99 said on October 5, 2009 at 11:04 am

    Everytime I read about these outbreaks (some of the first detected occurred in Seattle 20 years or so ago) I am reminded of The Sheep Look Up by John Brunner.

    The other good scifi read on pandemics is The Doomsday Book by Connie Willis, but it was more a viral sort of thing iirc.

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  14. Connie said on October 5, 2009 at 11:18 am

    Totally off topic: A local paper featured my work related battle with workforce last week (I won), and it has been picked up all over the wire. You may have read about me without even knowing it was me in the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette yesterday. Or the Michigan City New something, or the Huntington Herald Press, or you might have seen me on the WSBT news yesterday. This is kind of wierd, I am in the local news all the time, but getting picked up from the wire is kind of wierd. My daughter got twittered from a friend in Michigan City yesterday, telling her I was in her Sunday paper. So if you really want to know my last name you could search Connie, library, unemployed, or some such in some of those papers. Wow.

    TV news video live at

    Off to meet the TV guy from WNDU at one of my branch libraries.

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  15. brian stouder said on October 5, 2009 at 11:43 am

    Connie – that link was a GREAT palate cleanser (so to speak); your name has sizzle.

    Since it has a sort of echo with one of my favorite movies, it is now seared into my brain.

    (btw – I loved your measured, utterly reasonable quote in the printed article; just the sort of thing a professional librarian would say!)

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  16. ROgirl said on October 5, 2009 at 11:45 am

    In the case of hamburgers made up of ground beef from different sources, I would like to see a system that requires documentation on the suppliers, including traceability records, batch testing and reports by independent inspectors on the processing facilities.

    The e-coli risk is just one reason why I don’t eat fast food burgers, but it’s a powerful one, and I can’t be the only person out there who feels this way. Maybe enough publicity about people dying or becoming really ill from tainted food products will cause the food producers, processors and growers to lose substantial amounts of business if they don’t clean up their ways.

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  17. Sue said on October 5, 2009 at 11:54 am

    So, Connie, was the fight over funding, policy or procedure?

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  18. LAMary said on October 5, 2009 at 12:20 pm

    I think we should all order the meat grinder attachments for our Kitchen Aid mixers through your website so you can pay for yours through our orders.

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  19. Mindy said on October 5, 2009 at 12:31 pm

    My bestest buddy grew up on a dairy farm and will occasionally horrify me with a tale of modern farming practices. Her brother has the place now and has been an organic farmer for about ten years. Through them I’ve learned that if farmers were paid by the hour, milk would be around fifteen bucks a gallon. Organic milk would be even more.

    Anyone interested in learning about genetically modified food should watch The Future of Food. Equally horrifying.

    I’ve been making special trips to Shipshewana to buy meat for nearly two years. While the Amish raised meats don’t claim to be organic, the quality and careful packaging are terrific and prices are worth the effort. For anyone who lives near Shipshe, clean out the freezer and load your cooler in the car. Buy some fresh bacon from the counter if you need proof that heaven exists.

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  20. Sue said on October 5, 2009 at 12:35 pm


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  21. KLG said on October 5, 2009 at 12:46 pm

    Simple. I would completely de-industrialize “food” production. Yeah, I know. That is “impractical.” But there is no good reason, other than for the profit of vertically integrated companies like the subject of the NYT article in question (many of which are privately held), for ground “beef” of uncertain provenance to be “prepared” in factories in the Great Plains and then shipped all over the continent. Wendell Berry has written about this at length in his fiction and nonfiction, especially in “Sanitation and the Small Farm.” Your local farmer/grocer/butcher is highly unlikely to introduce a shit-smeared downer cow into the local food economy, where it may kill his friends, relatives, and neighbors. An industrial agriculture firm literally does not give a shit who it harms. Or to paraphrase Ed Abbey: “Nuclear SynFoods, Headquarters in Minneapolis-Hindquarters spread all over the globe.”

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  22. John said on October 5, 2009 at 1:00 pm


    Yoder’s Meat Shoppe’s website is off limits here at work because of “sex”. Exactly what are they selling or is this like the Vermont Country Store from last week?

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  23. nancy said on October 5, 2009 at 1:02 pm

    Breasts and thighs would be my guess, John. Also, “rubs.”

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  24. LAMary said on October 5, 2009 at 1:05 pm

    I was going to suggest the same thing. I’ve heard that most of our employee computers here block the site where you can sign up for breast cancer month fundraising activities. It’s that nasty word, breast.

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  25. Dexter said on October 5, 2009 at 1:29 pm

    I refused to eat Arby’s for years after their first e coli problems that sickened people.
    I actually became a lacto-ovo vegetarian for two years after that, but that turkey drumstick , so tantalizing, reversed my thinking one Thanksgiving.
    But its not as simple as washing cutting boards or even inspecting the actual meat…it goes much deeper. I will never forget the Bil Mar Foods , Sara Lee Brand, Zeeland, Michigan poisonings. I guess the prevailing thought is that the poisoning occurred from construction dust. People died from eating Ball Park Franks.
    I guess we follow Don Imus’s lead. I was reading a story on his return to TV, and found out he rejected surgery and radiation for his prostate cancer and is utilizing a treatment program of diet and treadmill workouts.
    From the Howard Kurtz WaPo story: “Imus decided against surgery and radiation, choosing an approach that relies on diet and daily treadmill exercise, a regimen supervised by a Columbia University doctor. Under the watchful eye of his wife, Deirdre, he subsists mainly on uncooked, organic foods such as raw sauerkraut, flaxseed and searingly hot habanero peppers. Imus says this approach has stopped the cancer from spreading, rattling off numbers to show it is under control. “

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  26. Mindy said on October 5, 2009 at 1:34 pm

    Chicken breasts. Definitely not safe for work.

    Sue, my friend’s brother has been living off the princely sum of three thousand dollars per year for many years and has somehow managed to raise eight children. The farm is able to function only because it’s paid for and the equipment was all purchased used and only when absolutely necessary. Being around his kids is like going back in time to the Depression. They are all very hard working, love to go to the library and get overly excited about the least little thing. My friend will sometimes go for a visit on a Friday night and arrive with a stack of takeout pizzas, which is better than Christmas to those kids. She tells me that their excitement is both very refreshing and terribly sad.

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  27. Dorothy said on October 5, 2009 at 2:17 pm

    How’s my week starting? Well, not so great. But it is with some sense of relief that I tell you all that my father-in-law passed on Saturday night. My husband was with him. I was at the hotel room. We’d kept a vigil all day Saturday at the nursing home, then we left to get a bite to eat and check into the hotel. Mike went back and about 45 minutes after he got there, he peacefully died.

    And more seriously, I finally got to see my co-worker Mary, whose husband (age 50) built our wonderful house for us. He’s had artery disease problems off and on for a few years, and had to have part of his right leg amputated two weeks ago today. Then suddenly about 6 days later, he developed a massive infection in his colon and had emergency surgery to remove it. She is weary beyond words and looks like she hasn’t slept well in a month. He’s slowly recovering, but he has no appetite and they are very worried about that. The man needs to eat so he can regain his strength to learn to walk again. The only good thing about this is they left enough of the colon so they might be able to reverse the surgery in 6 months to a year, and he’d go without the ostomy bag then. But in the meantime, he has quite a lot of rehabilitation ahead of him.

    Sorry to be Dorothy Downer but that truly is how my week is going.

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  28. Jeff (the mild-mannered one) said on October 5, 2009 at 2:24 pm

    Inserted update: my condolences, Dorothy. Peace to you and your husband (and your friend’s husband).

    Re: freezing meats — my one real contribution to science, by way of archaeology. In 1989 we got to excavate a 12,000 year old intact, butchered mastodon carcass from a glacial pond that had become sealed by sediments and was a stable anaerobic environment, until the golf course surrounding it went to dig a water feature and tried to salvage the sphagnum deposit for future greens construction. The dragline snagged a giant skull, and that when we got called in, but with the cautionary note “you’ve got two days, then i have to get back to work.”

    In the rush, our “real” archaeologist pulled out, as we mapped, photographed, and pulled the bones from the muck, a mass that he suspected might be the gut contents, and threw it in a deep freeze wrapped in foil. A year later, after we finished the microanalysis of the cut marks on the bone, we called a microbiologist and gave him the frozen hunk — long story short, we made the global press and Discover magazine with the then oldest organisms known on earth:

    The Enterobacter Cloacae little boogers had gone dormant 12,000 years ago, bided their time, and with a bit o’ warmth, went back on the job. Further testing confirmed it wasn’t from us not washing our hands between spadefuls, but the original gut content bacteria.

    Didn’t make steak tartare from the mastodon goo, and a good thing. We did find where they likely ate that, though.

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  29. Connie said on October 5, 2009 at 2:27 pm

    Sue, the battle is over the workforce offices providing assistance to local libraries which are overwhelmed by unemployed persons needing computer access to file weekly in order to get benefits. Sunday is the first dayof the week for filing, and those who file on Sunday receive their benefits on Monday. All workforce offices are closed on Sunday. Workforce informed me they were going to pull all assistance from local libraries and hoped we would help them convince those people to wait a day and come to workforce offices so that workforce could show them their other services. On of my branch libraries averages 75 people waiting in line for opening every Sunday.and that branch will continue to receive assistance.

    As to whichever of you asked about my Pontiac 6000 with Pirelli tires: it was an 89, first 89 model that dealer sold in Sept 88, had the loudest engine of any car I’ve ever owned, and its emission system regularly farted.

    I will be at Yoder’s Meats on Saturday, and have consistent access to several Amish free range meat sources. If you cruise east on US 20 get off at the SR 19 exit, turn south and stop at American countryside for your free range meat etc. , open W through Sat till 6.

    Dexter, I too will never forget the Bil-Mar Mr. Turkey disaster in my home town of Zeeland. My sister in law lost her job as a purchasing agent, and so did everyone else. And it was just a cool company to have in your home town. So I guess we just have to settle for Herman Miller.

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  30. Connie said on October 5, 2009 at 2:32 pm

    Brian, my name doesn’t have sizzle, it has zing.

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  31. Jean S said on October 5, 2009 at 2:52 pm

    haven’t had a fast-food burger in a long time because of this…

    and condolences, Dorothy.

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  32. Sue said on October 5, 2009 at 2:56 pm

    Dorothy, I’m sorry for your loss but happy about the “peaceful” part. My condolences, and good thoughts are going to your friend/coworker and her husband.

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  33. alex said on October 5, 2009 at 3:12 pm

    Wow, Jtmmo, that’s some fascinating stuff. I’ve always been curious about the Newark earthworks, btw, and found your recent discussion of them very interesting. Which leads me to this question:

    I remember some years ago reading that there was a runestone or stone tablet or something like that found in an Ohio Valley mound with Hebraic inscriptions. Ever hear anything about this and did anything ever come of it?

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  34. 4dbirds said on October 5, 2009 at 3:16 pm

    Dorthy, I’m so sorry to hear about your father-in-law.

    Was your friend’s husband in ICU? After our daughter’s accident we were told that it is very common for ICU patients to not eat. It can go on for weeks. They finally snaked an NG tube down her and fed her ensure.

    On the other thread, I am never eating a fast food burger again.

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  35. Jeff Borden said on October 5, 2009 at 3:44 pm

    A fascinating tidbit about Cargill that really has nothing to do with Michael Pollan’s piece but might be of interest to the NN.C community:

    Cargill is the largest privately-held company in the world. Yes, the world.

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  36. brian stouder said on October 5, 2009 at 3:47 pm

    Connie – my name has no zing; which I suppose is nothing to ‘stew’ about

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  37. Little Bird said on October 5, 2009 at 3:57 pm

    I think I need to tell Deborah that I intend to use this story to lobby for a stand-mixer with a meat grinder attachment.
    I’ll let her tell the story of the soup. And the bread. You should ask her about the bread!

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  38. Julie Robinson said on October 5, 2009 at 4:05 pm

    Dorothy, we all have downer days and downer weeks. You don’t have to apologize. I hope you can soon remember good things about Mike’s Dad, not just the way it ended. Cry now, laugh later.

    Your co-worker’s husband is used to being active and the hospital is a huge change. His appetite should return with medical stability. But what a huge challenge he will have doing construction work with one leg. Hard work ahead, and lots of need for supportive friends like you.

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  39. LAMary said on October 5, 2009 at 4:38 pm

    Connie’s name has that Frisian zing-a. We Frisians are known for being a wild bunch.

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  40. mark said on October 5, 2009 at 4:45 pm


    No need for “idustrial agricultural firms” at all, unless you value the ability to provide billions of people with safe, reliable sources of food at low cost. But to avoid a little e-coli, let’s go back to 1 in 10 running little farms and pray for reliably good weather. I’ll volunteer your kids for the new old world way of living. As an added benefit, it removes the risk that they might inadvertently end up taking a job with an outfit like Cargill, where cashing the first paycheck would turn them into heartless killers.

    Get over the fear, folks. Naure wouldn’t have put the most constant source of e-coli exposure within 3 feet of your mouth if you weren’t equipped to handle it with a little common sense.

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  41. nancy said on October 5, 2009 at 4:56 pm

    Surely there’s a happy medium between the 19th century and the 21st, Mark. Anyway, you’re awfully la-de-da about contaminants in your foods, so I volunteer you as Tyson’s food taster. I know this paragraph made me think a bit:

    Costco said it had found E. coli in foreign and domestic beef trimmings and pressured suppliers to fix the problem. But even Costco, with its huge buying power, said it had met resistance from some big slaughterhouses. “Tyson will not supply us,” Mr. Wilson said. “They don’t want us to test.”

    Burgers are a-waitin’! You take the first bite.

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  42. Sue said on October 5, 2009 at 4:59 pm

    Now mark, volunteering other people’s children for e. coli exposure danger, either the old fashioned way or with the help of modern technology, makes you sound like kind of a meanie, instead of the stand-up guy we all know you are.

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  43. Sue said on October 5, 2009 at 5:09 pm

    In other food news, didn’t see this coming:

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  44. KLG said on October 5, 2009 at 5:12 pm

    Mark: Sorry to burst your bubble, but small farms are more efficient and more sustainable in every way than American Industrial Agriculture. If you calculate the costs of all the externalities, that is. But that is never done in this political economy. In any case, we shouldn’t have to eat shit from Cargill and similar corporations. BTW, do you work for Cargill? Which would be fine with me. It’s not the workers who are responsible for their employers’ misbehavior and a paycheck from Cargill wouldn’t turn you into a heartless killer. As for normal human gut flora and the proximity of mouth and anus, learn a little microbiology and you’ll improve your credibility. O157:H7 infections in cattle are generally asymptomatic because cattle lack the receptors required for pathogenesis. Unfortunately, humans have the cell surface molecules that allow O157:H7 to do its damage. O157:H7 is a strain of E. coli people should never have in their bodies. Period. And they wouldn’t but for situations similar to that discussed here. One more thing, you keep my kids out of this and I’ll not mention your children, OK? That is all.

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  45. paddyo' said on October 5, 2009 at 5:14 pm

    I haven’t had a fast food burger in more than a year now and don’t intend to go back, but let me tell you the passage in that story that did it for me when I read my Sunday Times this morning (I was traveling all day Sunday and didn’t have time until now).

    It was the part where an assistant administrator for the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service told the NYT that his agency has to consider the impact of mandated testing on companies as well as consumers:

    “I have to look at the entire industry, not just what is best for public health.”

    Oh? Really? Funny, I thought “FOOD SAFETY and INSPECTION Service” kind of defined what you should be doing, Dr. Kenneth Petersen.
    Sounds more like “Food INDUSTRY Safety and NON-Inspection Service” to me.

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  46. Connie said on October 5, 2009 at 5:14 pm

    Woman here has just announced her candidacy for sheriff, after years as under sheriff. Her married name is Frisian, and I keep telling her wouldn’t it be cool to have two public officials in this county with Frisian names, even if we would be the only two people who actually knew.

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  47. LAMary said on October 5, 2009 at 6:11 pm

    Connie, my father’s maternal grandfather had lots of kids with his first wife, and when she died he married a much younger woman who had another large slew of children. If I google his last name, Knyfd, I get more Frisian names than you would believe. I think I’m related to half the Frisians in Northern NJ.

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  48. MarkH said on October 5, 2009 at 6:12 pm

    RE, The Arby’s Factor:

    Back 35+ years ago, in order to support myself at OSU, I tended bar at Victoria Station north of town on 161. Remember them, the restaurant made out of railroad cars famous for their prime rib and steaks? The kitchen manager was a good buddy of mine, and, as the company was very big on training, they sent management personnel down to the local rendering plant in south Columbus for “seminars” on how all the prime rib and steaks they cooked were processed. They saw how everything is done. “Nothing is wasted”, Kevin reported, “they use and sell everything, right down to the skin on the steer’s nuts. That last stuff processed goes to (places like) Arby’s”. Which makes sense when you know that Arby’s long ago gave up real roast beef for the “processed variety”. The experience at a rendering plant didn’t sit well with some of the kitchen staff. Kevin was a pro and ok with it all, except, he said, “if you go, you’ll never have another hot dog or sausage”.

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  49. basset said on October 5, 2009 at 6:27 pm

    MarkH, if the steer had nuts he wouldn’t be a steer.

    And I knew there was a reason we switched from Sam’s to Costco. Maybe this winter, we can rely more on game than on storebought meat.

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  50. Holly said on October 5, 2009 at 7:01 pm

    I used to work at a deli in a big name supermarket. I will give some advice. Do not try any samples, Do not buy the already cooked chicken, Have the clerk change the gloves they are wearing before they wait on you, When the salad has a funny color, there is a reason. Not everything is fresh. I found a turkey under the refridgerator one time and the manager put it back in the fridge. I told a co-worker and she had to sneak it out of the fridge to toss it out. I would try to toss things that I felt was bad. When I go to the store I am careful about what I buy. It seems to me that the bottom line is profit and nothing else.

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  51. Rana said on October 5, 2009 at 7:02 pm

    *hugs* Dorothy, if you’d like some. Sounds like a stressful, emotional week.

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  52. Jeff (the mild-mannered one) said on October 5, 2009 at 7:31 pm

    Alex, check this link out:

    Brad Lepper, who is curator of archaeology for the Ohio Historical Society, and i wrote the 2000 Timeline mag article on the Newark Holy Stones, which is the main discussion in print of these fascinating artifacts, and we did a talk on them for the Denison University faculty on the one-year early bicentennial of the births of Darwin and Lincoln (Feb. 12, 2008). If you want to be drowned in more info on these darn things, feel free to e-mail me off to the side . . . Brad and i are supposed to write a book for OU Press someday on them, but like my bio of Warren King Moorehead, it all awaits the creation of more than 24 hours in a day.

    I’m delighted to actually be asked about the Holy Stones rather than inflicting the info on poor helpless people! Seriously, if you want more stuff on this Alex, just let me know.

    ps – Brad’s the guy who thought to freeze the suspected gut contents, that had the 12,000 year old living bacteria in ’em. Plus lots of sedge and cedar tips, and enough autumnal flowers to let us identify the season, if not the exact year the mastodon died in.

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  53. Jean S said on October 5, 2009 at 7:47 pm

    …just unearthed my KitchenAid meat grinder attachment! I’m good to go.

    I see Mark Bittman has also weighed in on the E.coli issue (see his blog).

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  54. MarkH said on October 5, 2009 at 7:55 pm

    You know, basset, I KNEW there was something wrong with that, but that was his exact quote! Still a male of the species. He followed with grisly details, but I’ll spare everyone…

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  55. moe99 said on October 5, 2009 at 8:12 pm

    Ohhh, Dorothy, big hugs to you from Seattle.

    As long as we’re on food, a friend of mine sent me this to cheer me up and it really made me laugh. I hope it does the same for you:

    It actually made me think of coozledad. Now why would that be?

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  56. Jeff (the mild-mannered one) said on October 5, 2009 at 8:14 pm

    Re: Bittman –

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  57. mark said on October 5, 2009 at 8:18 pm

    Sue and KGL-

    I was voluteering KGL’s kids to become famers, not to be exposed to e-coli. Sorry, and as suggested, I’ll leave them out of this. A whole lot of other people’s children will have to become efficient, sustainable and poor farmers to feed us and the rest of the world without agricultural industry.

    Nancy- I’m very concerned about food safety. I think early on I said cooz raised a number of issues that I think are of real concern. Shit in food just isn’t one of them. It makes great copy because it sounds so unappealing, but it’s not a big problem, it’s somewhat unavoidable (like ground rat shit in the rice you buy and coffee you drink), and easily handled with proper storage and preparation.

    I guess I just think the shit fascination is interesting. I worked on my grandparent’s farm when I was young and the farms that produce our food are full of shit, blood, dirt, hair, bugs and every other item that makes us squirm. They all wash off.

    In a lot of Asia the issue as it relates to food is taken in stride because it has to be, but they are far more fastidious about their feet and floors. I’ve never gotten used to the take off your shoes when entering thing, but it makes huge sense. Our streets are covered with shit and we tramp it into our homes with little thought.

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  58. Jeff (the mild-mannered one) said on October 5, 2009 at 8:31 pm


    In its (falsely) reassuringly subtitled booklet “The Food Defect Action Levels: Levels of Natural or Unavoidable Defects in Foods That Present No Health Hazards for Humans,” the F.D.A.’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition establishes acceptable levels of such “defects” for a range of foods products, from allspice to peanut butter.

    Among the booklet’s list of allowable defects are “insect filth,” “rodent filth” (both hair and excreta pellets), “mold,” “insects,” “mammalian excreta,” “rot,” “insects and larvae” (which is to say, maggots), “insects and mites,” “insects and insect eggs,” “drosophila fly,” “sand and grit,” “parasites,” “mildew” and “foreign matter” (which includes “objectionable” items like “sticks, stones, burlap bagging, cigarette butts, etc.”).

    Tomato juice, for example, may average “10 or more fly eggs per 100 grams [the equivalent of a small juice glass] or five or more fly eggs and one or more maggots.” Tomato paste and other pizza sauces are allowed a denser infestation — 30 or more fly eggs per 100 grams or 15 or more fly eggs and one or more maggots per 100 grams.

    Canned mushrooms may have “over 20 or more maggots of any size per 100 grams of drained mushrooms and proportionate liquid” or “five or more maggots two millimeters or longer per 100 grams of drained mushrooms and proportionate liquid” or an “average of 75 mites” before provoking action by the F.D.A.

    The sauerkraut on your hot dog may average up to 50 thrips. And when washing down those tiny, slender, winged bugs with a sip of beer, you might consider that just 10 grams of hops could have as many as 2,500 plant lice. Yum.

    Giving new meaning to the idea of spicing up one’s food, curry powder is allowed 100 or more bug bits per 25 grams; ground thyme up to 925 insect fragments per 10 grams; ground pepper up to 475 insect parts per 50 grams. One small shaker of cinnamon could have more than 20 rodent hairs before being considered defective.

    Peanut butter — that culinary cause célèbre — may contain approximately 145 bug parts for an 18-ounce jar; or five or more rodent hairs for that same jar; or more than 125 milligrams of grit.

    In case you’re curious: you’re probably ingesting one to two pounds of flies, maggots and mites each year without knowing it, a quantity of insects that clearly does not cut the mustard, even as insects may well be in the mustard.

    The F.D.A. considers the significance of these defects to be “aesthetic” or “offensive to the senses,” which is to say, merely icky as opposed to the “mouth/tooth injury” one risks with, for example, insufficiently pitted prunes. This policy is justified on economic grounds, stating that it is “impractical to grow, harvest or process raw products that are totally free of non-hazardous, naturally occurring, unavoidable defects.”

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  59. beb said on October 5, 2009 at 9:41 pm

    I think I’m gonna hurl….

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  60. nancy said on October 5, 2009 at 9:50 pm

    Look, it’s very true that all industrial food production is, so to speak, sausage-making, and you wouldn’t want to know much about it. (I live with someone who worked in a Campbell’s soup plant. He won’t eat it.) But I really wish Mark and others would stop acting as though this issue is all about faint-hearted pansies who can’t handle the truth. This woman was poisoned, not just sickened, by one of the most virulent strains of this common bacteria that we know of, and it wasn’t just a fluke, it was a massive stroke of bad luck that came because of a food-production industry designed not to “produce safe food,” but to make 99-cent burgers possible for fast-food chains. Take a look at the pictures of her in her nine-week, medically induced coma and tell me I’m overreacting.

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  61. Jeff (the mild-mannered one) said on October 5, 2009 at 10:19 pm

    I’m just fascinated by how the old saying is still so true — “you’ll eat a peck of dirt before you die.”

    And the bugs that live in that peck.

    The story does deploy feces in some cheap shot sort of ways, but the bottom line is obviously that we need to fund USDA a bit more, probably through industry fees that will make beef a bit less cheap, which it artifically is right now. Plus, pay the $8 Bn in deferred maintenance for National Park infrastructure. Somewhere after we come up with the $800 Bn for something a bit less than almost-universal health care.

    But Mark’s right in saying that nothing will change needing to clean your cutting board with bleach and keeping dishes that touched raw meat away from the serving zone. Poop happens.

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  62. basset said on October 5, 2009 at 10:24 pm

    Connie, I thought the WSBT reporter’s name sounded familiar… turns out he worked in Terre Haute TV at the same time I did, back in 1980-81. Different station, though.

    A few summers before that, I worked in an egg-processing plant down in Daviess County, second worst job I ever had – so nasty that I used to come home in the middle of the night (after cleaning out the rotten-egg-grinding machine), wash down in the yard with the garden hose, and hang my overalls on the fence before I could go inside and shower.

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  63. brian stouder said on October 5, 2009 at 10:35 pm

    It seems to me that the center of gravity in that story, from a public policy standpoint, is the industry enforced Omertà

    In addition to the harrowing passages that the Proprietress pointed out, this passage struck me especially:

    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. “If I test and it’s positive, I put them in a regulatory situation. One, I have to tell the government, and two, the government will trace it back to them. So we don’t do that.”

    Mandated regular testing programs and record-keeping would serve several purposes, including improving our food supply, isolating problems in the supply chain, and putting the liability lawyer-bloodhounds onto the right track. How on earth does Cargill get absolved, when their own trial lawyer pins the debacle on an Uraguayan supplier, when the sons of bitches at Cargill are the ones who chose to trust them, and add their goods (or bads) to Cargill-branded finished product?

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  64. MichaelG said on October 5, 2009 at 10:45 pm

    Most of the fresh hamburger we see around here is ground on site. What is not, is easily identifiable by its packaging. Assuming the people behind the counter clean the grinder and the dies between batches we should all be OK with local stuff. Gulp. After all, millions of people eat millions of pounds of meat. I’m not trying to make light of this but it does seem to me that most if not all of the E.coli problems stem from the factory patties and chubs. Preformed burgers, frozen or not and the big chubs of burger sold around here are produced – wherever. If we buy in-store ground beef and especially if we buy whole meat and grind it ourselves we should be alright. If we are going to buy food at all we have to trust someone. Fortunately, horrible things like the tragedy that befell Ms. Smith are rare. Fast food burgers? I just don’t know. I do eat them but rarely, like three or four times a year. Not because I’m a holy guy but because they’re just not my kind of lunch. However, if a problem develops in the corned beef chain, I’m fucked. And , Mary, I found a very nice deli in Burbank at Third and Palm. Barstow is a skip lunch kind of town. I had a nice dinner at the Mission Inn in Riverside. Besides, grind them yourself burgers really do taste infinitely better.

    All we can do is take the elementary precautions. I plan to continue to religiously clean my plastic NSF rated cutting boards (I have three) and run them through the dishwasher and, yes, I do bleach them. What’s the alternative?

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  65. Jeff (the mild-mannered one) said on October 5, 2009 at 11:40 pm


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  66. Dexter said on October 6, 2009 at 1:17 am

    Petraeus had prostate cancer diagnosed in February and already has it controlled after radiation … I guess war leaders still have privacy in these matters. Politicians are monitored a lot closer than the military brass it appears. My point is that the military only tells us what they want us to know. And I guess Lt. General Stanley McCrystal really is stirring up bad feelings with Gates and the folks in the Pentagon. Gates basically told McCrystal to use the damn chain of command and shut the f@( l< up.
    Did you see the animated story board of the attacks in the Afghan mountains last weekend that killed eight US military personnel? Slaughter it was…and guess what? NOW McCrystal has ordered that damn remote US military outpost closed next week. He hates sticking US soldiers out in those killing zones for apparently no good reason, so I give him credit. He also is clamoring for more and more US troops on the ground in Afghanistan.
    Really, there is no end in sight, nor is there a reasonable hope of this going well until a conclusion happens. It is not going to end.

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  67. alex said on October 6, 2009 at 7:48 am


    Fascinating stuff. I remember first coming across articles about the holy stones when I worked for Rand-McNally writing about the local histories of various destinations. (This was back when then the company seemed to think CD-ROM would be the new format to replace the hardbound atlas.) I remember coming across a few articles about the stones that seemed to give them more credence, although I find Brad’s article you linked to very interesting in that I’m an underground railroad/abolitionist history researcher in my spare time (also with a book inside me desperately trying to get out).

    I’ve learned a great deal about religion and politics in the nineteenth century by dint of my research, but this is perhaps the first effort of which I’m aware in which science or scientific fraud was pressed into service for the antislavery cause.

    Lots of interesting Ohio antislavery figures with family ties in my neck of the woods. Rush R. Sloane’s father and sister lived in a town just north of me, as did the progeny of Philemon Beecher, the “swarthy black knight” who was an early Ohio congressman. His children’s and grandchildren’s personal papers are in the manuscript collection of Howard University. Philemon is remotely related to the Beecher preachers (some of whom were active around here), as were the Presbyterian Rankin brothers.

    Fort Wayne discovered a few years ago that it has a Rankin house, and what’s more, that its architectural peculiarities mirror those of the landmark Rankin House in Ripley. It’s brick on three sides with a wooden edifice tacked onto one end while the basement is designed with a tunnel around the perimeter.

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  68. beb said on October 6, 2009 at 7:53 am

    Afghanistan really is a damned if you do, damned if you don’t situation. The Russians couldn’t tame the country, the British couldn’t tame the country. There’s no reason to think we’ll have any better luck there. But we’re such a war mongering country that the idea of retreat s considered unacceptable. So we’re just going to pin down our army, spend trillions of dollars , bleed thousands of lives for decades to come with no obvious accomplishment.

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  69. Connie said on October 6, 2009 at 8:26 am

    As I listen to the debate about Afghanistan, I am reminded of attending the National Veteran’s Day memorial service at the Arlington Cemetery amphitheater in 1982, and hearing the entire crowd, mostly Viet Nam veterans in town for the dedication of the Viet Nam Veteran’s Memorial, come to their feet and cheer when Caspar Weinberger said “Never again will we enter a war that we do not intend to win.”

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  70. coozledad said on October 6, 2009 at 9:17 am

    I never had any faith in the idea of the “invisible hand” notion that producers would be compelled to self regulate. Working for Union Carbide taught me that corporations will be murderously negligent, and willing to spend millions attempting to circle the wagons, when it would have been a hell of a lot cheaper, and efficient to be good citizens. Bhopal was in the works for awhile, and chemists had been warning the company repeatedly that the plant was a disaster waiting to happen for several years.
    When it finally happened, my wife told me one of the guys in management just shrugged and said,”What’s a few hundred dead Indians?”
    So fucking much for Adam Smith.

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  71. Dorothy said on October 6, 2009 at 9:47 am

    I feel the need to steer (oooh, another meat term) the conversation in another direction so here goes. Last night among papers we were going through, we found some goodies. One of which was legal papers filed by some guy, absolving my father-in-law of all wrong-doing, etc. etc. in 1953. It seems they had a fight of some kind and my f-i-l beat the shit out of this dude. He was 25 at the time. Mike said he thinks he’d heard whispered stories over the years. Mike’s maternal grandfather paid the guy off, so charges were dropped. Our kids are getting quite an education as to the checkered past of their beloved Grandad!

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  72. Jolene said on October 6, 2009 at 10:17 am


    Although not quite so sexy, my sibs and I had a chuckle when we found my father’s senior year report card after he died last spring.

    He’d been an excellent student as well as a fair-haired boy who was liked by both teachers and students all the way through. But he had a devilish side too, and, as graduation neared, it seems that his less wholesome impulses grew stronger. His academic work held up, and he graduated as valedictorian. But, at each marking period, he received a lower grade in deportment than the time before, ending the year w/ a D.

    We enjoyed knowing how much he likely enjoyed getting that grade.

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  73. paddyo' said on October 6, 2009 at 1:03 pm

    Jolene —
    Obviously a classic and early case of what today is known as “senioritis”!

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  74. LAMary said on October 6, 2009 at 5:40 pm

    I found my kindergarten report card, which was all satisfactories except for my grade in speech. I got an unsatisfactory with the note,”Mary has so many interesting stories to tell, but she must learn to use a bigger voice.”

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  75. brian stouder said on October 7, 2009 at 9:59 am

    What I recall about kindergarten was that there was one kid (not me!) who seemed to have wet his pants every day at story time. No doubt, those ignominious moments in his life are still etched in his brain, somewhere. And – in kindergarten they had the coolest carboard building-blocks. Invariably, the girls would build a house and have a tea party in there, and the boys (including me) would burst through their walls and say “Superman!”. We must’ve worn out our teacher

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