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.