Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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October 5, 2009

WHAT THE FREE MARKET CAN'T DO.... The NYT had a striking piece over the weekend about inspections and standards of ground beef. It may not sound like an interesting subject, but believe me, it's well worth reading.

The Times, for example, highlighted the plight of Stephanie Smith, a 22-year-old Minnesota woman who, after eating a grilled hamburger, was left in a coma for nine weeks. She later emerged paralyzed, her nervous system ravaged. The article explains that Smith "ran out of luck in a food-safety game of chance whose rules and risks are not widely known."

Meat companies and grocers have been barred from selling ground beef tainted by the virulent strain of E. coli known as O157:H7 since 1994, after an outbreak at Jack in the Box restaurants left four children dead. Yet tens of thousands of people are still sickened annually by this pathogen, federal health officials estimate, with hamburger being the biggest culprit. Ground beef has been blamed for 16 outbreaks in the last three years alone, including the one that left Ms. Smith paralyzed from the waist down. This summer, contamination led to the recall of beef from nearly 3,000 grocers in 41 states.

Ms. Smith's reaction to the virulent strain of E. coli was extreme, but tracing the story of her burger, through interviews and government and corporate records obtained by The New York Times, shows why eating ground beef is still a gamble. Neither the system meant to make the meat safe, nor the meat itself, is what consumers have been led to believe.

Ground beef is usually not simply a chunk of meat run through a grinder. Instead, records and interviews show, a single portion of hamburger meat is often an amalgam of various grades of meat from different parts of cows and even from different slaughterhouses. These cuts of meat are particularly vulnerable to E. coli contamination, food experts and officials say. Despite this, there is no federal requirement for grinders to test their ingredients for the pathogen.

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.

Using a combination of sources -- a practice followed by most large producers of fresh and packaged hamburger -- allowed Cargill to spend about 25 percent less than it would have for cuts of whole meat.

In 2007, in the wake of highly publicized E. coli outbreaks, the Bush administration resisted calls for stronger federal regulations and instead created a ... wait for it ... "food safety czar." Very little changed, and the problem persists.

Indeed, relevant companies are doing what the industry is expected to do -- exploiting loopholes to cut corners and save costs. If policymakers simply let the free market guide the food-safety process, the results include people like Stephanie Smith, a young woman who was nearly killed for engaging in high-risk behavior: eating a hamburger for dinner.

The answer, then, is a political one -- federal officials need to intervene to do what American consumers cannot do for themselves, in this case, imposing stricter safety regulations. For all the Teabaggers/Fox News hatred for government regulation -- "I don't want Obama's hands in my hamburger!" -- a story like this one should turn the anti-government crusade on its head.

Two years ago, Rick Perlstein coined the phrase "E. Coli Conservatism." The importance of rejecting that ideology keeps getting stronger.

Steve Benen 8:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (26)

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Comments

I love how scum like this author keep trotting out the "They are just doing their jobs by exploiting loopholes and murdering people." BS every time something like this happens.

being in a fucking business dies NOT excuse shit like this. These people are not "Doing what they are supposed to.". They are murdering people. Cut the fucking pro-business crap.

Posted by: soullite on October 5, 2009 at 8:06 AM | PERMALINK

The meat industry treats much of its practices and the ingredients in ground beef as trade secrets. While the Department of Agriculture has inspectors posted in plants and has access to production records, it also guards those secrets.

It's not a free market if the consumers don't have full information.

There's a lot of good reasons for avoiding beef as much as possible. This is one of them.

Posted by: dr2chase on October 5, 2009 at 8:12 AM | PERMALINK

Don't worry Megan McArdle will explain how Wal-Mart's and Cargill's reputations will now suffer and they'll be driven out of business.

Posted by: Rob on October 5, 2009 at 8:12 AM | PERMALINK

The entire industry of agriculture remains perhaps the least regulated in the U.S. We can thank both Republican and Democrats representing the farm states for keeping the lard flowing from D.C. to the farm and food interests while allowing these same interests to essentially "regulate" themselves. There is a good chance you are taking quite a risk too from E.coli in the nation's "swimmable" rivers. It is not only our food safety regulators who are not imposing stricter regulation and enforcement.

Posted by: lou on October 5, 2009 at 8:29 AM | PERMALINK

Did this hamburger come from Walmart or some other heavy discounter?

Walmart pushes producers of all sorts of products to radically reduce costs to keep prices low and appear to have a team of people overseeing production to help producers reduce costs. So, applying this philosophy to food, how far do they go to make sure they keep low prices on food?

Logically this would make every food product sold in discount grocery stores suspect and if your paranoia wants to get out of control, after a while you could easily feel you're being poisoned by shopping at these stores.

Posted by: Jan in Stone Mtn on October 5, 2009 at 8:31 AM | PERMALINK

And there's an equally horrifying story in today's NYT, about the leveraged buyout pirates who gutted the Simmons mattress company, devastating the workers but resulting in huge paydays for the pirate "executives," who seldom got off their yachts. Their methods are virtually indistinguishable from the mob hollowing out a legitimate sporting goods business depicted in that famous episode of The Sopranos. But hey, Republicans -- let's all bow down and worship at the altar of free-market capitalism!

Posted by: dalloway on October 5, 2009 at 8:42 AM | PERMALINK

We need the next Upton Sinclair quickly.

Posted by: par4 on October 5, 2009 at 8:48 AM | PERMALINK

They came from Sam's club. Same as Wal Mart.

No one should be eating ground beef. Period.

Posted by: bubbaokie on October 5, 2009 at 8:51 AM | PERMALINK

Just a few posts down Steve posts about conservative intellectual bankruptcy. But conservatives have never had any use for intellectualism. Their whole schtick has always been keep government rules out of my business. They are anti-policy because they are anti-regulation, leading them to be what they are; anti-government. Actually, considerable intellectualism does exist in conservatism. It's just that it manifests itself not in policy for the masses but in creative ways of co-opting the reigns of government away from the people of America and placing them under the control of the business elite. In that, they are masters. How the hell do you convince a freedom loving democratic people they shouldn't rule themselves? That's what conservative "intellectuals" have to tackle day after day, year in year out. And they are amazingly good at accomplishing this difficult task. See Christianity in America for an amazing display of this sleight of hand.

Posted by: about time on October 5, 2009 at 9:02 AM | PERMALINK

Hey, here's an idea: Don't eat the stuff! Your heart will thank you. . .

And, if you can't handle the Vegan Lifestyle, then buy from a local butcher, who buys from local farmers.

Posted by: DAY on October 5, 2009 at 9:05 AM | PERMALINK

It wasn't just ground beef -- it was those preformed patties that are sold only in the frozen food section of the grocery store.

On the spectrum of unsafe meat products, this has to be counted as the least safe -- as one person in the article noted, it's basically just a way for the producers to sell scraps and other bits of meat that consumers would not buy if they knew what it actually was. So they aren't told, but the packaging strongly implies that it is made of higher quality ground beef.

So buying actual ground beef is much safer -- buying it from a farmer's market or "Laura's Brand" is probably safer than the super market, and buying cuts of beef and grinding it in your food processor is even safer.

The advantage of fast food vendors, like McDonald's is that they really do test for doneness, something that consumers can't easily do, and even if they do, they frequently suffer the effects of cross-contamination by using cutting boards. So another tip: when handling or cutting meat, do it on a plate or other non-porous surface, and even better, handle it in the sink (just remember not to clean vegetables and fruits immediately afterwards).

Not eating meat, of course, is always an option. But don't buy the patties sold in boxes. Ever.

Posted by: Barbara on October 5, 2009 at 9:11 AM | PERMALINK

Frankly, I wouldn't eat any type of processed or pre-packaged meat--beef, pork or poultry.
You think the methods are any better with poultry producers? And e-coli isn't the only risk.

Posted by: Allan Snyder on October 5, 2009 at 9:28 AM | PERMALINK

The food industry is actually very heavily regulated, it's just that the majority of the regulations only serve to prop up the kind of industry that we have now. For the most part, FDA and USDA regulations tend to just provide a facade of responsibility for companies so that when outbreaks such as this occur, the slaughterhouses and cattle producers can shrug their shoulders and say "Well, we met all of the regulations..." The documentary Food, Inc. provides a much more comprehensive look at this industry than the New York Times piece.

Our food industry does need to be held accountable, but past experience ought to tell us that federal regulation can't be relied upon, as it is the business model that needs to change. Part of this means treating food manufacturers as you would treat other businesses (or people, for that matter). If anyone else poisoned you, you could sue them, if not for attempted murder than at least for reckless negligence in their food preparation. Furthermore, our eating habits create too much of a demand for meat and dairy products. The only way that agro-business can meet this meat demand is by the kind of terrible food manufacturing process described in the article. If the demand for meat weren't so insanely high, then it would not be profitable for businesses to manufacture cattle the way they do.

Posted by: Caleb Pittman on October 5, 2009 at 9:38 AM | PERMALINK

I'm glad I don't eat meat so I can focus my worries on salmonella-laden spinach and other tainted produce. I only have so much fretting time in a day.

Posted by: shortstop on October 5, 2009 at 9:45 AM | PERMALINK

Plow up your lawn, plant a garden. Rescue those Mason jars from Grandma's basement. Put a chicken coop behind the garage.

Question: How much do you spend per month on 'sickness insurance'? And how much a month on 'healthy food'? Is there something wrong with this ratio?

Posted by: DAY on October 5, 2009 at 10:10 AM | PERMALINK

Very simply, it's time to punish the executives who preside over the murder of their customers. As long as they believe that it is in their interest to kill a few customers to save a little money, they will. The next time this happens, the CEO of the company and all of the members of the board who voted for the incentive programs that made the CEO think this was a good idea need to be prosecuted for murder, and it needs to keep going until they learn.

Posted by: freelunch on October 5, 2009 at 10:10 AM | PERMALINK

Democrats have to do a better job tying stories like this to the Republican philosophy of zero regulation.

Posted by: Fred on October 5, 2009 at 10:25 AM | PERMALINK

Sounds like the financial industry learned how to produce "derivatives" from the meat industry, eh?

We should look carefully and see how many other bad examples various kinds of business copy from one another.

" ... a mix of slaughterhouse trimmings and a mash-like product derived from scraps that were ground together at a plant in Wisconsin.... from slaughterhouses in Nebraska, Texas and Uruguay, and from a South Dakota company that processes fatty trimmings ..."

Can't you just see the guys in the suits saying, hey, we can do THAT with mortgages, and insurance, and, hmmm, what else too.

Posted by: Hank Roberts on October 5, 2009 at 10:33 AM | PERMALINK

Although the practices of our food industry are nearly inexcusable, it is essential to understand that it goes far beyond executives "cutting corners" to save costs. So long as cattle are fed on corn rather than grass there will be large amounts of bacteria growing in their stomachs and no amount of antibiotics, no amount of bleaching the meat, will insure a 0% rate of e. coli. No amount of regulation will insure it either, and there's no way the federal government will regulate against feeding cows on corn, because the federal government is the one giving farmers money to grow insane amounts of corn so we can feed our cows on it.

This is not a Democrats vs Republicans issue. There is a long, byzantine chain of events that led up to this situation, and it is extremely unlikely that we can simply create new regulations to make it all better. Our food industry and our diets are fundamentally flawed. Things have to change on the consumer side. Cutting out corn-based products (as difficult as that is, considering all processed food is full of corn) is one good step. Cutting down on meats and dairy (or cutting them out completely) is an even better step. Bleed the beast dry by refusing to buy their products.

Posted by: Caleb Pittman on October 5, 2009 at 10:49 AM | PERMALINK

Some folks say that if we all just bought all our groceries from Whole Foods, we'd never get sick and wouldn't need health insurance, either.

Posted by: qwerty on October 5, 2009 at 10:52 AM | PERMALINK

Regardless of your economic belief system, it is important to understand that our current practices of manufacturing meat did not arise from a purely free market. Without corn subsidies from the government, the factory farm system would not be nearly so profitable. Without the government actively protecting these businesses through special libel laws and protections from lawsuits, the information about their practices would have been exposed long ago, and their gross negligence would have landed them in a lot of debt through lawsuits.

It is a mistake to think that this is a partisan issue. When liberal lawmakers talk about increasing regulations on the food industry, they inevitably just work to make it harder for the few mom and pop farmers left to raise their animals and slaughter them in a traditional way. When democrats and republicans from farm states talk about helping out the poor farmers, all they mean is theyre going to give them money to grow more corn and sell it for less than the cost of growing it. That's right, the government injects money into the system so that processed foods can be made from corn products more cheaply, causing the public masses to grow diabetic and fat off of Fritos and Coca Cola (not to imply that this is their goal, of course, I'm not that conspiratorial)

Posted by: Caleb Pittman on October 5, 2009 at 10:55 AM | PERMALINK

It's still a Jungle out there.

Posted by: sparrow on October 5, 2009 at 10:57 AM | PERMALINK

Some folks say that if we all just bought all our groceries from Whole Foods, we'd never get sick and wouldn't need health insurance, either.

If we did that, then we'd all be contributing to the GOP. And you WOULDN'T have health insurance. Don't get sick. And if you do, dies quickly.

Posted by: Gridlock on October 5, 2009 at 11:06 AM | PERMALINK

"Some folks say that if we all just bought all our groceries from Whole Foods, we'd never get sick and wouldn't need health insurance, either."

I believe this was some Grade A Snark.

Posted by: ohboy on October 5, 2009 at 11:31 AM | PERMALINK

As Steve said, this article really should be read by all.

Here's a classic quote from the article of a food safety officer who sees protecting his suppliers from regulators as perfectly normal and appropriate.

"The food safety officer at American Foodservice, which grinds 365 million pounds of hamburger a year, said it stopped testing trimmings a decade ago because of resistance from slaughterhouses. 'They would not sell to us,' said Timothy P. Biela, the officer. 'If I test and it's positive, I put them in a regulatory situation. One, I have to tell the government, and two, the government will trace it back to them. So we don’t do that.'"

I wish this "food safety" guy worked for me, so I could fire him.

Posted by: Chris on October 5, 2009 at 12:35 PM | PERMALINK

a story like this one should turn the anti-government crusade on its head

But you'd have to connect the dots for them.

As far as health care reform, how can you ingest mystery meat and expect a good outcome? Since guvmnt isn't part of the solution, it wouldn't be a bad thing to get more educated about what we do to ourselves.

And what Caleb Pittman said; Bleed the beast dry by refusing to buy their products.

Posted by: Kevin on October 5, 2009 at 2:34 PM | PERMALINK
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