How do 7 million pounds of beef get contaminated?

ground beef in a bowl
Public Domain MaxPixel

Another massive recall raises questions about food safety standards -- and how animals are raised.

It has been less than a month since Melissa reported on Cargill Meat's recall of 132,000 pounds of deadly ground beef, contaminated with E. coli. Now another U.S. meat processor, JBS, has announced a recall that makes Cargill's look puny by comparison. JBS is recalling nearly 7 million pounds of beef, saying it could be contaminated with salmonella. So far 57 people have gotten sick in 16 states and all cases have been traced back to the same processing facility in Tolleson, Arizona.

How does this happen? In this day and age of supposedly advanced food safety standards, how do 7 million pounds of beef -- a shocking and obscene amount of meat to dump in landfill -- manage to slip under the radar? Joe Fassler, writing for The New Food Economy, attempts to answer this question. He points to a number of factors.

The particular strain of salmonella found in the JBS outbreak, known as Salmonella Newport, is consistently linked to dairy cattle. When dairy cows get infected, their milk production drops and they are sent to slaughter if treatment isn't worthwhile. Salmonella is not as big an issue in a dairy because milk is pasteurized prior to consumption, but when these sick cows are slaughtered for consumption, it becomes a big problem. Meat isn't pasteurized and, as Fassler says, "Plenty of Americans like their burgers medium-rare."

Dairy cows are not raised specifically for their meat, which means that they are usually ground up and used as filler in other products, rather than prime cuts. This greatly increases the chances of contamination across a broad range of products. Fassler quotes a 2012 study from the journal Foodborne Pathogens and Disease:

"Lean beef trimmings from cull cows are often blended with high-fat content beef trimmings harvested from animals finished in feedlots to facilitate a consistent supply of ground beef that meets certain purchase specifications. As a consequence, beef from culled dairy cows may be broadly incorporated into ground beef products across the United States."

Shockingly, meatpackers don't have to test for Salmonella because it's not considered an 'adulterant' by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. This is because Salmonella is, in theory, killed by high temperatures and therefore not "injurious to health," as stated by the Federal Meat Inspection Act. A company is not even obligated to recall contaminated meat, nor can the federal government stop it from sending meat into the public market. JBS' recall was entirely voluntary -- and probably smart for PR.

So, basically, we have a system in which the sickest animals are the ones we're most likely to eat. And a big part of the reason why these animals are sick is because of the conditions in which they're kept. A veterinarian for the CDC told Fassler,

“One of the things that might really predispose [dairy cows] to infections are some of the environmental factors and just being mixed with hundreds of other cows. I think anytime you bring a large group together, whether it’s a group of people or a herd of cattle, you’re potentially introducing new diseases."

This is not news to us at TreeHugger, where we write regularly about the dangers of industrial agriculture and the disease pandemics that are brewing within their walls, not to mention the inherent cruelty to animals unable to exercise normal behaviors. But driving these production models is consumer demand -- people who want their meat cheap, and a lot of it too. As long as a pound of beef costs only a few bucks and chicken pieces are even less, this is the kind of quality people can expect -- old, sick animals ground up for food.

Whenever I read stories like these, I think of Margaret Atwood's sci-fi novel, The Year of the Flood. In it, she described Secret Burger, a chain of fast food restaurants selling burgers made from mysterious sources of protein -- anything from rats to cats to humans. It was horrifying to read, but our reality is not quite so far from it as we'd like to think.

Is there a solution?

Yes! Don't eat supermarket-grade beef or meat that comes from any industrial production facility, and if that means eating less meat or going vegetarian, so be it. Visit a local farmers' market and you'll find real people who actually raise the animals they're selling, people who may allow you to visit their farms and can describe in detail how they prioritize ethical and safe practices. The tradeoff is the cost; instead of spending $8 on chicken for a family of four, you'll pay $20. But if you only do that once or twice a week, it's not so bad. Explore vegetarian and vegan options for other meals.

As Dr. David Jenkins, creator of the glycemic index and convert to veganism, said in reference to animal welfare, "Our children and future generations will be horrified that collectively we paid no attention to these issues." Whether it's animal welfare or risks to public health, both can be resolved by refusing to subsidize a broken system with our dollars.

How do 7 million pounds of beef get contaminated?
Another massive recall raises questions about food safety standards -- and how animals are raised.

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