The Beef Industry and Congress are killing people

The New York Times ran an absolutely devastating story on the malfeasance of the ground beef industry and the blind eye of government regulators yesterday.   Ever since I read Fast Food Nation, I had a pretty decent idea on how bad things were when it came to beef processing, but I had no idea pre-processed ground beef was this bad.  To quote from my friend Amy Ferris Wheeless in the comment thread on my facebook page: "I don't think we want to
be a part of society where the "choice angus ground beef" that we can
buy in our frozen food section is some sort of feces-ridden beef
trimming + ammonia soaked mash, pieced together from four different
slaughter houses from around the world."  But that's exactly what is happening– and it's legal.  The producers don't test what they get from their suppliers because nobody wants to find out that it the meat is poisoned with higly toxic variety of E. Coli:

Costco said it had found E. coli in foreign and domestic beef
trimmings and pressured suppliers to fix the problem. But even Costco,
with its huge buying power, said it had met resistance from some big
slaughterhouses. “Tyson will not supply us,” Mr. Wilson said. “They
don’t want us to test.”

A Tyson spokesman, Gary Mickelson, would
not respond to Costco’s accusation, but said, “We do not and cannot”
prohibit grinders from testing ingredients. He added that since Tyson
tests samples of its trimmings, “we don’t believe secondary testing by
grinders is a necessity.”

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.”

See no evil, fear no evil.  Unreal.  And just so we're clear, this toxic E. Coli can (and sometimes does) lead to kidney failure.  And young children are especially vulnerable. 

So, what does the government do?  It "urges" better testing.  Not requires, mind you, but "urges."  Great.  And I urge my students to study more and do the readings.  I think this quote from a government official is all you really need to know:

Dr. Kenneth Petersen, an assistant administrator with the department’s
Food Safety and Inspection Service, said that the department could
mandate testing, but that it needed to consider the impact on companies
as well as consumers. “I have to look at the entire industry, not just
what is best for public health,” Dr. Petersen said.

This is not the head of the USDA, this is an administrator in the "Food Safety and Inspection Service."  Seems to me, that these guys need to focus quite simply on public health.  Furthermore, the long-term success of the industry will be in big trouble if it is a threat to public health.  There's a nice political science term, "regulatory capture" for when a bureaucratic agency identifies with and serves the agency it regulates, rather than the American public.  Hard to find a much better example than this. 

As for me, I'm going to pay a lot more attention to exactly where my ground beef comes from (and try to eat a little less, but Kim is just such a red meat addict). 

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State http://faculty.chass.ncsu.edu/shgreene

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