You Want Fries With That? Ammonia? Bacteria?

Two little-noticed stories during the year-end holiday period demonstrated the ominous, increasing stresses on our industrial food-supply system, and the absence of any rational, let alone effective, measures to safeguard it.

First, a 16-state outbreak of E. Coli contamination in meat, sickened more than 20 people in the Midwest and required the recall of a quarter-million pounds of beef. Escherichia coli is a formerly harmless family of bacteria that live in the lower intestines of warm-blooded animals and, especially in cattle, assist in digestion. Among the bacteria detected in the meat was the strain O157:H7, a recent and lethal mutation that was created by industrial mistreatment of cattle.

Most often, E. Coli contamination is found in ground beef, because of the intermixing of multiple sources, and all the processing by machines that are hard to sanitize. The most recent outbreak was notable because it involved steaks — not normal steaks, but so-called “needled” steaks. In order to give the consumer the tenderness that is expected in a steak, and in order to sell inferior quality meat that would otherwise go to the hamburger grinders, the industry tenderizes certain cuts by mechanized hammering with metal needles or small blades. The process severs the tendons and muscle tissue that make the meat tough, and also carries into the interior of the cut any bacteria that are on the surface. If that cut of meat is not heated to an interior temperature of at least 140 degrees — a “medium” to “medium  well” steak —  the bacteria live to infect the consumer.

(By the way: anyone who has even a passing acquaintance with the way industry provides food today, who eats a rare steak, a red hamburger, raw shellfish or sushi, should have all sharp instruments confiscated and be put on suicide watch. You might as well play Russian Roulette with no empty chambers.)

A week after the Midwest recall, the New York Times revealed that one of the industry’s few supposed success stories in dealing with bacterial contamination of meat appears to be another figment of their public relations departments’ imaginations. Years ago, a company named Beef Products Inc. figured out a way to salvage from the recesses of the meat factories the smallest, fattiest, nastiest scraps of trimmed tissue and process them into something that could be added to hamburger to add weight, if not much more. The problem was that this stuff was almost always riddled with bacteria, instead of just usually, and so they came up with a way to soak the material in ammonia (Ammonia! Previously known as a fertilizer and a household cleaner!) to kill the bugs. If you eat a fast-food hamburger in America today, you are almost certainly consuming this lovely product.

In 2007, George W. Bush’s Department of Agriculture reluctantly started testing hamburger for contamination, in response to a wave of illness and death across the country because of meat contamination. But the government exempted Beef Products, because they soaked their stuff in ammonia. Not only that, the agency exempted Beef Products from any future recall of tainted beef, even if their ingredient was present in the product.

But now the Times reports that since 2005, those who test hamburger destined to be fed to children i the school lunch program — people in the same Agriculture Department that has treated Beef Products so well — have found in the company’s hamburger helper both E. Coli (three times) and another bad actor, salmonella (48 times). In the same period, the company was suspended from selling anything to the school lunch program three times.

Only when the Times showed the data to the people at the other end of the Ag Department hall, who are supposed to protect the public and not just school children, did officials revoke Beef Products’ exemption from testing and recall.

About this testing of hamburger to find bacterial contamination: almost nobody does it. Large producers of hamburger typically refuse to sell to customers who test — I’m not making this up — and besides the school lunch program and Costco, you will look a long time to find another large food provider who tests the hamburger it buys.

Every  day, our food supply becomes more dangerous to our health, both from the effects of consuming it and the effects of producing it. Meanwhile the industry continues to cut its costs, quality and safety while the government that is supposed to protect people from such things simply smiles and nods.

This is not going to get fixed anytime soon. To protect yourself, find local providers of healthy, naturally produced food and support them. Spend a little more than industrial prices in order to support them, and don’t think of it as expensive food, think of it as cheap life insurance. For one thging you won’t get poisoned. For another, before very long we are going to need those local growers. Desperately.

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