I had no idea what kind of horrors awaited this month’s issue of Consumer Reports. An article discussing E.coli-related beef recalls discussed the difference in number between 2006 and 2007. In ’06, there were less than 200,000 recalled. Can you guess how many in pounds in ’07? I couldn’t either:
Over 25 MILLION pounds.
It gets better – according to the article:
If meat tests positive for the bacteria, companies are allowed to cook it for sale in other products such as pizza or tacos. While thorough cooking should kill E.coli, diverting tainted meat creates an opening for cross-contamination.
Think about all the places you obtain pre-cooked beef from: fast-food tacos and hamburgers, tubs of pre-cooked beef at the supermarket, restaurants probably use quite a bit in their salads and dishes. I hate to sound like a cynic, but I can’t say that I trust a slaughterhouse who maintains sub-standard working environments and a swinging-door work-force to properly cook tainted beef and protect other carcasses from becoming contaminated. Apparently, with over 25 million pounds of beef recalled, the system isn’t working.
Unfortunately, I couldn’t quickly find a chart that shows the yearly recall amount for the past few years – you would think this kind of information would be made available. In any event, 25 million pounds recalled for E.coli in one year is a phenomenal amount. Consumer Reports listed a few circumstances that may have contributed to the problem:
…Rising oil prices have encouraged greater production of ethanol, which creates a corn byproduct that increasingly is being used as cattle feed. This feed appears to make the animals’ digestive tracts even more hospitable breeding grounds for the toxic strain of E.coli bacteria, [according to USDA officials]. [Ed - By the way, as Michael Pollan points out in 'Omnivore's Dilemma', since cows cannot digest corn naturally, their stomachs will explode unless treated with antibiotics - corn-based cattle feed is also a main contributor to the rise in antibiotics and hormones in beef.]
…Carcasses can move through slaughter-houses at a rate of up to 390 per hour, making inspection difficult.
This article reminded me of something I read recently about a slaughterhouse in California who supplies the local schools being caught on tape processing “downer,” or obviously ill, cows by chaining them to forklifts when they were not capable of walking. Most articles like this one concentrated on the animal cruelty angle, but there’s more to it – sick cows are more likely to harbor contamination, since their immune system is obviously impaired and they wallow in feces (which, by the way, is how E.coli spreads in slaugterhouses – feces from the cow’s stomach or skin).
I have bought local beef, chicken and pork for a couple of years now, and can definitely taste a difference. Now I have a new reason for buying local and carefully selecting what I eat at restaurants.
I know properly cooking and preparing beef destroys E.coli contamination, but I don’t control the preparation of my food when I consume pre-cooked or restaurant food – with so many people now eating in restaurants, this seems like a pretty serious problem. Or am I over-reacting? What do you think?