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In January of this year, I did a CineMonday! review of a movie I had recently watched called Fast Food Nation.

As I read an article in the New York Times this morning called “E. Coli Path Shows Flaws in Ground Beef Inspection”, I was reminded of my review, which was fictional, yet based on reality. Well, here’s reality for you.

This is a story about a 22-year-old children’s dance instructor who is now paralyzed from the waist down because she ate a contaminated hamburger. Some excerpts:

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.

[snip]

Unwritten agreements between some companies appear to stand in the way of ingredient testing. 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.

[snip]

As with other slaughterhouses, the potential for contamination is present every step of the way, according to workers and federal inspectors. The cattle often arrive with smears of feedlot feces that harbor the E. coli pathogen, and the hide must be removed carefully to keep it off the meat. This is especially critical for trimmings sliced from the outer surface of the carcass.

[snip]

Federal inspectors based at the plant are supposed to monitor the hide removal, but much can go wrong. Workers slicing away the hide can inadvertently spread feces to the meat, and large clamps that hold the hide during processing sometimes slip and smear the meat with feces, the workers and inspectors say.

[snip]

Cargill’s final source was a supplier that turns fatty trimmings into what it calls “fine lean textured beef.” The company, Beef Products Inc., said it bought meat that averages between 50 percent and 70 percent fat, including “any small pieces of fat derived from the normal breakdown of the beef carcass.” It warms the trimmings, removes the fat in a centrifuge and treats the remaining product with ammonia to kill E. coli.

With seven million pounds produced each week, the company’s product is widely used in hamburger meat sold by grocers and fast-food restaurants and served in the federal school lunch program.

[snip]

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.”

According to the article, the woman who was paralyzed by eating ground beef tainted with a powerful strain of E. coli was purchased at Sam’s Club. The article goes on to explain that Costco, on the other hand, tests all of the beef it sells.

Craig Wilson, Costco’s food safety director, said the company decided it could not rely on its suppliers alone. 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.”

I am not shocked by what I read in this article, but I am saddened and disgusted. If ever there was a reason to stop eating ground beef, this is it. If not for the sake of the cows or the sake of the planet, then by all means, think about doing it for your own sake and the sake of your family. I know I will not be letting my daughter eat the hamburgers at school, and I will never buy ground beef from Sam’s Club. The risks are just too high.

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h/t to Sara B. for linking to this on her Facebook page

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