Building a society where eating a burger won’t paralyze you

hamburgerIf you ever wanted proof that corporations matter more than people in our society, you need not look further than the New York Times article on how 22-year-old Stephanie Smith was poisoned by the O157:H7 strain of coli that contaminated a “burger” from food giant Cargill. As we learn in the article, this isn’t a case where a diseased animal somehow found its way into the food chain. It is a harrowing account of how industrial food is killing and maiming us.

Stephanie, a children’s dance teacher who rarely ate meat, did consume a hamburger her mother cooked for Sunday dinner in 2007. Not long afterward, Stephanie suffered diarrhea, then bloody diarrhea and finally her kidneys shut down. Doctors put her into a nine-week coma (e coli poisoning reportedly hurts worse than childbirth), and now she may never walk again.

In the article, we learn that the burger she ate was created from so many gut-churning quasi-meat components that tracing the problem back to its source almost becomes meaningless:

“[T]he hamburgers were made from a mix of slaughterhouse trimmings and a mash-like product derived from scraps . . . 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.”

“Mash-like product”? And people wonder why I am a vegetarian?

In addition to confirming that our food system is broken, the article illustrates how our political system fails us because corporate cash matters more than individual contributions. Yes, a talented politician such as President Obama succeeded in attracting millions of supporters, many of whom sent him relatively small campaign donations. But their collective voices do not deliver a unified message in the same way that food corporation lobbyists can capture the ears of the people who matter at the White House and in Congress.

If this were not the case, would we have a system where corporations can produce toxic mystery meat as long as doing so is 25% cheaper? In a true perversion of transparency, “Many big slaughterhouses will sell only to grinders who agree not to test their shipments for E. coli, according to officials at two large grinding companies. Slaughterhouses fear that one grinder’s discovery of E. coli will set off a recall of ingredients they sold to others.” Profits before people.

The article goes on to quote Dr. Jeffrey Bender from the University of Minnesota who warns, “Ground beef is not a completely safe product.” He also notes that instead of making us safer, our current meat inspection system is “going a bit in the opposite direction.”

Even that mild criticism means that Dr. Bender will likely face enormous pressure to retract his statement or say no more. In these cash-strapped times, the academic freedom to speak out often runs afoul of the pressure to remain silent, to keep the government and corporate grants flowing.

The rest of the unnerving article is a litany of sickening corporate abuse. The speedup of the line at slaughterhouses makes inspection meaningless as the animals whiz by. Slaughterhouse workers protest that they are not given time to clean their knives, even though the new strains of e coli are hideously virulent pathogens unlike any we have seen before. (Incubated in those Confined Animal Feeding Operations perhaps? And if you think ours are bad, just imagine what they must be like in Uruguay.)

The article also notes that hamburger today not only contains animal products but bread crumbs and spices that aren’t even listed on the label. Amazing indeed since there is growing evidence that imported spices are an increasingly worrisome source of food contamination.

One of my biggest surprises while covering agriculture in the Seventies and Eighties was how much money and time food corporations expend in fighting for specific language in regulations that allow them to do things that would literally make their customers sick, if they knew. What you eat is the product of intense lobbying in Washington, where loosening a regulation or adding a loophole blackens the corporate bottom line even though it would make most people see red.

Yet at a deeper level, it really doesn’t matter what the regulations say when food corporations consciously ignore complaints about basic sanitation. The article notes that Cargill’s own inspectors had complained that the plant that produced the burger that poisoned Stephanie suffered from cases where there were hamburger patties on the floor and “gnarly” old bits of meat in the grinders. Yet the company apparently did nothing to correct the problems, at least in time to save Stephanie.

But won’t the massive lawsuits the companies face pressure them to make our food safer? They help, but they are no panacea. Lawsuits typically drag on for years and years, and those that settle before trial often require that all records are sealed, so we never learn what the problem really was. Moreover, Cargill could end up off the hook if evidences proves that the contaminated meat came from a subsidiary, which is why corporations push back against any attempt at real transparency.

So what should a meat eater do? Find a local, sustainable farmer and buy direct. Or find an old-fashioned butcher shop where they will let you see how they produce their hamburger. Or you can reward those corporations that push back against abuses. Costco tests the trimmings for e coli before making its hamburger. And, though Tyson disputes the allegation, Costco says that their policy is why the slaughterhouse will not sell to them. On a larger scale, you can support politicians who vote for legislation that favors sustainable agriculture over short-term, bottom-line thinking.

We should also praise and support the New York Times for this article. It takes time and talent to investigate industries that spend a fortune to remain under the public radar. Every word must be bullet-proof or they could find themselves facing a lawsuit. Remember when Oprah was sued by the Texas cattlemen for “disparagement” of their product? It takes the deep pockets of news organizations such as the New York Times to produce, publicize and defend stories such as these.

Bonnie Bucqueroux retired from Michigan State University's School of Journalism to experiment with online publications, including Lansing Online News. She is also co-president (with Susan Masten) of Lansing Area NOW.

2 responses to “Building a society where eating a burger won’t paralyze you”

  1. debbie T

    Thanks Bonnie! I have been reading quite a bit about the horrors of ground meat, but I didn’t know it was this bad. yuck.

    We have a butcher nearby that definitely grinds their own meat. Something to look into for sure!

  2. Bonnie Bucqueroux

    Consumers Union is also asking us to sign a petition urging that we end the practice of feeding chicken feces and other unsavory litter to cattle. Makes that burger seem even less tasty and safe.

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