The New York times printed a story on October 3rd, 2009 about a young dance instructor, Stephanie Smith (age 22) whose entire life was altered in 2007 when she went over to her parents’ house for a home-cooked hamburger one afternoon. Her illness started out like many others – she believed she had a stomach virus. She had the usual stomach cramps and discomfort that many individuals experience.
And then other symptoms appeared – bloody stool, failing kidneys, and violent convulsions. The convulsions were so severe doctors put Smith into a coma for 9 weeks. When she awoke from the coma, she found she was paralyzed from the waist down, had suffered brain damage, and was unable to walk.
This food-borne illness, non-other than the deadly E. coli bacteria, originated from ground beef which can trace its roots to slaughterhouses in Texas, South Dakota, Uraguay, and Nebraska. These slaughterhouses process meat for Cargill, one of the corporate giants of agribusiness.
Like most agribusiness companies, the meat is taken from a variety of sources and is not only lower-quality cuts but sourced from parts of the cow most likely to have contamination from feces. Feces from industrially-produced meat also normally contains the E. coli virus due both to the feed consumed by the cattle (soy, grains, corn) and the filthy, abhorrent living conditions of the animals.
Federal inspectors have continually found Cargill in violation of its own safety procedures. Even though the corporation was remiss in its handling of meat, they received no sanctions or fines for their breach from the government. The Department of Agriculture did threaten to withhold their seal of approval stating on the package “U.S. Inspected and Passed by the Department of Agriculture.”
The digestive tracts of grain-fed cattle are extremely high in acidity. This environment causes the E. coli bacteria to develop and thrive. On the other hand, grass-fed animals on sustainable lands generally do not have these virulent strains in their digestive tract, and are therefore much less likely to infect people who consume their meat. The grass-fed variety is also clean from another deadly pathogen – Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE), or the infamous Mad Cow Disease (MCD).
According to federal inspectors and plant workers, the risk of contamination is likely along each step of meat processing in industrial processing facilities. Feces from the animals’ hide, smeared all over the outside of the animals’ bodies, can easily be spread onto meat being separated from the carcass during removal. The movement of carcasses along the assembly line goes at such a rate that employees are not always able to “keep up” with the pace, and as a consequence, many mistakes can be made. When the meat is completely removed, it is treated in a bath of ammonia to kill bacteria.
Cargill’s meat products amount to about seven million pounds of meat produced weekly. The company’s product can be found all over the country in grocery stores, fast-food restaurants, as well as in the federal school lunch program eaten daily by our children. In the breakdown, ten percent of the burger eaten by Ms. Smith came from Beef Products, who proudly state on the main page of their web site “The Use of Ammonia Compounds in Food Processing”. The price paid by Cargill? As shown by billing records, about $1 per pound, which according to industry experts is roughly 30 cents less than cuts made from whole meat. Would you eat meat that only cost an average of $1 per pound?
A study funded by Beef Products from Iowa State University determined that ammonia baths effectively reduce E. coli to levels that are virtually undetectable. This discovery was accepted by The Department of Agriculture as proof that the procedure was not only effective but safe. After the outbreak, Cargill declared to the federal agency that Beef Products was definitely not on the list as a possible source of contamination for the meat.
One safe meat producer, U.S. Wellness Meats (Missouri-based) guarantees their meat due to the following:
Hamburger meat comes from from whole muscles which are completely safe. Meat is removed from the carcass with machinery that leaves intact much of the meat from the spinal area, unlike practices used only in industrial meat processing plants that move through thousands of animals on a daily basis. U.S. Wellness Meats also uses a procedure which removes the spinal fluid sack from the backbone immediately following slaughter, thus eliminating the risk before processing the meat.
Animals are raised on sustainable lands with grass as feed, and are not consuming grain which is a direct cause why E. coli and other virulent bacteria form in the first place. The animals are raised in a clean environment from the first day of life to ensure they are exposed to neither animal contaminants nor chemicals such as pesticides.
We’ve seen this time and time again over the last two decades with news reports of meat recalls and illnesses occurring from people who have consumed the meat. The tainted meat clearly shows flaws in a system rooted well beyond the inspections process. I’d like to pose the point that this entire situation is really what’s working against the ethical treatment of animals (and humans). What additional proof do government officials, health experts, food industry regulatory personnel, and the general public need that the problem isn’t going to be solved with stepped up food safety protocols – and that the real issue lies in the growth, production, and processing of the meat from the animals in the first place? In general, if you aren’t supporting the growth, sale, and distribution of real, sustainable food operations, you are in effect supporting this abominable, multi-billion dollar industry that seeks only to produce more food faster for profit – all at the expense of the environment and human and animal.
Some individuals might automatically assume this is yet one more reason to stop eating meat; and this is not an uncommon sentiment as vegetarian and vegan diets are becoming more en vogue. Last week I posed the point about supporting sustainable farming and consuming meat from sustainable sources to PETA, whose reply was that eating meat sustainable-raised was just not realistic because there are simply too many people to feed. We’ve already gone over the fact that when people produce and consume sustainable meat, they not only eat less meat but they take care of the environment. But by maintaining the belief that “we just can’t feed every person sustainable meat”, and by not supporting those who are raising real, sustainable food, groups like PETA are granting power to and supporting agribusiness giants like Cargill. This whole way of thinking is really a large part of what is responsible for allowing the horror of factory farming to continue at all.
If people truly desired the ethical treatment of animals and humans, they would jump in and support the real sustainable community and food growers who are seeking to treat our lands, people, and animals with the utmost respect and stewardship. Of course PETA supporters are going to protest factory farming and its treatment of animals. But they also discount what people who want to support a truly sustainable way of life are trying to advocate as well. So when you hear someone claiming solidarity with PETA who says that sustainable meats just won’t cut it, remember the way that the meat you eat is processed and relay this story to him or her. You just might save someone’s life.
This article is part of Cheeseslave’s Real Food Wednesdays Carnival – please visit this site and read the other great real food articles listed there.