A few days ago I ordered a hamburger cooked medium at a local diner and my mother gave me a look. ”What?” I said. ”It’s fine.” She raised her eyebrows and shook her head. ”It really isn’t,” she said. I ate the burger anyway, but my curiosity was piqued, and I later turned to the internet machine to figure out which of us had it right.
In this, as in so many other things, my mother was right and I, wrong. Thanks largely to the indefatigable efforts of reporter Michael Moss, the New York Times has published a number of articles recently detailing the dangers involved both with the processing and in the consumption of ground beef, and the findings are – well, disturbing, to say the least. It turns out that far from being high-quality meat simply run through a grinder, commercially-produced ground beef is mostly a combination of various fatty trimmings – including a “pink slime” that was once used only for pet food but has, since beef companies started treating it with ammonia, been increasingly replacing real cuts of lean meat.
That’s bad enough. But it turns out that even injecting poison into the meat isn’t enough to kill dangerous bacteria. Moss published a long article on the subject in early-October, and it still bears reading, but I’m going to quote from his more recent December 30, 2009 article because its scope is somewhat wider.
Beef Products Inc., had been looking to expand into the hamburger business with a product made from beef that included fatty trimmings the industry once relegated to pet food and cooking oil. The trimmings were particularly susceptible to contamination, but a study commissioned by the company showed that the ammonia process would kill E. coli as well as salmonella.
With the U.S.D.A.’s stamp of approval, the company’s processed beef has become a mainstay in America’s hamburgers. McDonald’s, Burger King and other fast-food giants use it as a component in ground beef, as do grocery chains. The federal school lunch program used an estimated 5.5 million pounds of the processed beef last year alone.
But government and industry records obtained by The New York Times show that in testing for the school lunch program, E. coli and salmonella pathogens have been found dozens of times in Beef Products meat, challenging claims by the company and the U.S.D.A. about the effectiveness of the treatment. Since 2005, E. coli has been found 3 times and salmonella 48 times, including back-to-back incidents in August in which two 27,000-pound batches were found to be contaminated. The meat was caught before reaching lunch-rooms trays.
The article lays out the unsavory details of the ground-beef industry at some length, and by the end two facts seem incontrovertible: the meat industry is completely disinclined to ensure they are providing a safe product to their customers, and the U.S.D.A. is powerless to stop them. Or, as Moss puts it in the most damning sentence in either article:
Presented by The Times with the school lunch test results, top department officials said they were not aware of what their colleagues in the lunch program had been finding for years.
These findings should be sobering for people who – like myself – routinely eat ground beef.The fact of the matter is that meat companies have been routinely injecting a caustic, toxic chemical into vast amounts ground beef, to dubious effect and incalculable harm. (Beef that has been subjected to the ammonia process goes from having a pH of 6 to a pH of 10, and during the experimental phase it gave off a pungent odor.) And it doesn’t even stop the E. Coli! Exactly one hour after the first meat was processed at Beef Product’s brand-new plant in Sioux City, a batch of 26,000 pounds tested positive for the bacteria. Moss’s articles suggest that ground beef may never be safe for mass production – that we are, in effect, one minor slip-up away from a catastrophic epidemic.
That companies are failing to adequately protect consumers from virulent pathogens is criminal. That they are inordinately putting schoolchildren at risk is simply unconscionable. Thanks to budgetary restrictions, school lunch meat is subjected to one-tenth as many safety tests as meat served in fast-food restaurants. In 1993, four children died after eating contaminated hamburgers from Jack in the Box, and the resulting lawsuits were in large part what led to increased testing. How many children will have to die for Beef Products Inc. to change its ways?