What’s wrong with the food?

In the wake of the recent E. Coli poisonings tentatively traced to Taco Bell, Salon.com recently ran a very interesting interview with Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore's Dillemma.  I've been meaning to read this books since I heard a fascinating interview with the author on Fresh Air.  Anyway, here are some interesting tidbits from the interview:

The Consumer Reports study about the chicken noticed a rise in
the number of contaminated chickens over the past three years — in a
previous survey, 42 percent of grocery store chickens contained
campylobacter, and now it's 81 percent. Is there any reason for that?

…We've learned how to make meat very cheaply, and that
means making it very quickly. In beef-processing plants, there are up
to 400 head an hour, which is just — it's impossible to keep manure
off the carcasses. In chicken too, although it's a much more automated
system, the very speed of this, when you're eviscerating these animals
mechanically, a certain number of times you're going to break the
intestines. There's going to be some mishap on the line and the manure,
which I assume is the reservoir for, and again I don't know, for
salmonella and campylobacter, is going to get in the bath of the water
in which you've got your thousands of carcasses chilling, and it's
going to spread.

…We have so centralized our food supply that, if you look at
the example of hamburger, we're grinding most of the nation's
hamburgers in a very small handful of plants and most of the nation's
chickens are coming out of a handful of plants where they've all been
in the same water bath. This is a Petri dish. We've created a huge
Petri dish for our food
[emphasis mine], and it's not just meat. We've seen it in
spinach, too, with the Natural Selection story
this fall. So even though you can get these problems in smaller
agriculture, you don't get this kind of scale, you don't get the
widespread contamination.

The interview also addresses the role of government in (not) protecting our food supply:

Given that this has been the administration since 9/11, and given
that they've gotten a very clear signal that there's a problem with
regulation of food in this country, and that their own GAO, not to
mention that [former secretary of the Department of Health and Human
Services, which oversees the FDA] Tommy Thompson
has warned that there's a huge threat in a centralized food production
system of both accidental and deliberate contamination. Nothing has
been done to decentralize the system in a way that would offer us more
safety.

When you put all your eggs in one basket, it's very precarious. It's
a very precarious system, and it leaves you vulnerable to all sorts of
problems, one of which we're seeing, these contaminations. But it also
leaves us vulnerable to terrorist threats. I really think the
over-centralization of the food supply is a threat to national security
and public health, and it's a threat that's not being addressed.

A pretty sobering read.  Cook your meat well. 

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