Where's the Beef (Coming From)?
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.
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