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Where's the Beef (Coming From)?

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The Times titled this article with the humdrum "E. Coli Path Shows Flaws in Beef Inspection," but the mundane head belies some great journalism -- a transfixingly grotesque look at America's beef production complex and its many problems and dangers. I'd tell you to read it over lunch, but you may want to pick another time.

The story is ostensibly about Stephanie Smith, a semi-vegetarian children’s dance instructor who bit into a contaminated burger at her aunt's house and ended up in a coma that left her paralyzed. It's a wrenching story. But the article is never quite able to show that E. coli outbreaks are on the rise. Jeffrey Bender, a food safety expert at the University of Minnesota notes that outbreaks had been decreasing, but “it looks like we are going a bit in the opposite direction.” Presumably, if there were hard numbers demonstrating an increase in cases, the article would have included them.

What the article does show to be happening is the Franken-burger. Looking at a single patty, you probably imagine it coming from one cow, or at worst, a couple of cows from a single farm. You're not even close.

The frozen hamburgers that the Smiths ate, which were made by the food giant Cargill, were labeled “American Chef’s Selection Angus Beef Patties.” Yet confidential grinding logs and other Cargill records show that the hamburgers were made from a mix of slaughterhouse trimmings and a mash-like product derived from scraps that were ground together at a plant in Wisconsin. The ingredients came from slaughterhouses in Nebraska, Texas and Uruguay, and from a South Dakota company that processes fatty trimmings and treats them with ammonia to kill bacteria.

It's impossible to say how many cows, from how many farms, went into that burger. This is the danger. A carcass infected with E. coli will not contaminate a package, or even a few hundred packages, of meat. It will contaminate hundreds of thousands of pounds. It will be virtually untraceable.

This is much the argument I made in last week's Gut Check column: To understand the problems in the food production system, it's useful to think of the recent financial crisis. What we learned there was that we had done a very good job mitigating mundane kinds of risk. Most people, for instance, got a good yearly return on their money without trying very hard. The problem was we had done it by centralizing and interconnecting and making banks dependent on other banks. When something really did go wrong, it infected the whole system.

So too with the food system. The fact that one cow's trimmings can impact hundreds of thousands -- or even millions -- of pounds of meat is a wake-up call. So too was the disaster at the Peanut Corporation of America, where some peanuts contaminated with Salmonella typhimurium forced a recall of 3,913 products from 361 companies. That's even scarier than meat: At least you can tell people not to eat a burger, and the advice is fairly easy to follow. It's harder to avoid all processed foods containing compounds laced with peanuts. This is the modern face of tainted food: not a moldy peanut or a piece of rotted meat, but contamination at a production plant that serves hundreds of companies making thousands of foods.

Stephanie Smith's story is awful, but it's not what worries me. Rather, I'm worried about systemic failure. Our system is vulnerable to a mistake that sickens millions and kills thousands. A number of our food producers have become too big to fail, which, as we've learned, doesn't mean they won't fail so much as it means that the consequences will be terrible when one of them does.

Photo credit: Thomas Mukoya/Reuters.

By Ezra Klein  |  October 6, 2009; 9:46 AM ET
Categories:  Food  
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Comments

I think I'm going to buy myself a meat grinder.

Posted by: ostap666 | October 6, 2009 11:09 AM | Report abuse

It's gross for sure. The high-pressure meat slurry in burgers and cheap burritos. The older I get the less meat I eat. Reading stuff like this reinforces that so it's not all bad. I think I will have vegetable soup for lunch.

Posted by: luko | October 6, 2009 11:54 AM | Report abuse

I'm not a vegetarian, in fact I like meat. But I haven't eaten ground meat for years, and especially not beef, for the reasons you discuss. And especially not in fast-food places. Really well-raised chicken, beef, lamb or pork tastes better and therefore one can eat less and be satisfied, for not too much more cost.

Industrial food production is really ugly.

Posted by: Mimikatz | October 6, 2009 12:14 PM | Report abuse

E. coli is also surprisingly common in lettuce and spinach.

Posted by: tomtildrum | October 6, 2009 12:35 PM | Report abuse

tomtildrum - But is E. coli O157:H7 common in spinach and lettuce? I'm not aware that it is.

ostap666 - You should do so. Grinding whole cuts of chuck, or custom-blending cuts, makes for fantastic burgers. Or go to a butcher shop that fresh-grinds.

Posted by: JEinATL | October 6, 2009 1:00 PM | Report abuse

There is a solution: At the huge beef plants, irradiate the mix.

Posted by: shelgreen | October 6, 2009 2:20 PM | Report abuse

Nothing is going to be done about the various issues with the Global Food Supply until we have mass deaths. Thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands. Until then, articles like this will pop up, then be swept back under the rug. We can't even get the low hanging fruit of reform passed because Big Food is just too freaking big and too powerful.

The saddest thing we can predict about the outcome of mass deaths is that the "reform" and "solutions" will be patchwork. Even in the face of death, Big Food will fight it. So "solutions" will end up being like the "irradiate the mix" solution offered above. We'll have an easy "fix" without thinking through the added impact that it might be causing because that's simply something to punt down the road.

John

Posted by: toshiaki | October 6, 2009 4:58 PM | Report abuse

So, Cargill has to swallow a massive recall, pay millions in compensation (likely, if they can't pin the negligence on Greater Omaha Packing) and legal costs (undoubtedly), while still suffering the presence of state and federal inspectors monitoring their operations (said inspectors who did little more than facilitate the spread of contaminated meat), and Klein's interpretation of his own hyperventilation (meat is "grotesque", peanuts are "scarier") necessitates that *something* be done about the "food system", before "systemic failure" sets in, because we are "vulnerable to a mistake that sickens millions and kills thousands."

Gosh, Klein, you're going to scare the girls, talking like that. And even if that's what they like, it's not exactly right.

A. Millions can't get sick at once, because even if Cargill managed to make a million E. coli infested patties at a time (aside: I always thought it awesome that Phillip Morris produces more than a billion cigarettes a day), they won't all get eaten the same day, and news travels fast in the modern world (even without the government whispering it along, believe it or not.)

B. Someone should furnish Klein with a little clipboard, have him write up *policy* for taking apart a cow, and send him down to the stockyards to do his cutesy routine in front of the guys doing the work.

Anyone here seen the jokes going around the last couple? Along the lines... A conservative who doesn't like meat stops eating meat. A liberal who doesn't like meat works to make meat illegal.

Grind your own meat, Klein, and leave the free market of food, which works exceptionally well, even saddled as it already is with incompetent government "inspectors", alone.

Posted by: msoja | October 7, 2009 12:39 AM | Report abuse

Ronald Bailey at Reason dot com blows the Times article out of the water.

http://reason.com/blog/2009/10/05/bureaucracy-or-irradiation-whi

Posted by: msoja | October 7, 2009 11:11 AM | Report abuse

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