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Saturday, January 02, 2010

 

New York Times digs into a ground beef safety issue


by Larry Geller

As you may remember from her famous run-in with the cattle industry in 1996, Oprah Winfrey exclaimed on her show about mad cow disease, "It has just stopped me cold from eating another burger!" So she was sued.

She ultimately won, but that suit underlined the risk involved in taking on the meat industry in this country. One little slipup and you’re in trouble.

Perhaps that figured into the careful investigation conducted by New York Times reporter Michael Moss in preparation for his article, Safety of Beef Processing Method Is Questioned (12/30/2009). The newspaper posted a series of documents, some marked “Confidential,” along with the article.

The story is about fatty trimmings that “the industry once relegated to pet food and cooking oil.” A company invented a process to treat these trimmings (see how respectful I am being) with ammonia to kill E. coli and salmonella.

Based on a study conducted by the company, according to the Times article, the USDA approved the product, and

With the U.S.D.A.’s stamp of approval, the company’s processed beef has become a mainstay in America’s hamburgers. McDonald’s, Burger King and other fast-food giants use it as a component in ground beef, as do grocery chains. The federal school lunch program used an estimated 5.5 million pounds of the processed beef last year alone.

The Times reports that they obtained records from the school lunch program that show problems with the product:

Since 2005, E. coli has been found 3 times and salmonella 48 times, including back-to-back incidents in August in which two 27,000-pound batches were found to be contaminated. The meat was caught before reaching lunch-rooms trays.

The USDA comes under scrutiny in the article for accepting the product despite internal criticism:

Carl S. Custer, a former U.S.D.A. microbiologist, said he and other scientists were concerned that the department had approved the treated beef for sale without obtaining independent validation of the potential safety risk. Another department microbiologist, Gerald Zirnstein, called the processed beef "pink slime" in a 2002 e-mail message to colleagues and said, “I do not consider the stuff to be ground beef, and I consider allowing it in ground beef to be a form of fraudulent labeling.”

Fraudulent or not, it’s safe to assume that most people are not aware of what goes into this or other food that they eat.

“The industry doesn’t want you to know the truth about what you’re eating, because if you knew, you might not want to eat it.” [from Food, Inc. preview]

Read the Times story and draw your own conclusions. Yeah, I’m chicken (though the more I know about chicken…). I’ve done my job if you read the article.



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