Bonnie Bucqueroux

Bonnie Bucqueroux
Mason, Michigan, United States
May 01
Editor & Publisher
Sustainable Farmer
I recently retired from Michigan State to spend more time on Sustainable Farmer.com, an online multimedia "magazine" for people who grow food with respect for all living things. Yet another leading-edge Boomer still trying to save the world.


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OCTOBER 4, 2009 1:45PM

Poison burgers - we are what we eat

Rate: 3 Flag

 If you ever wanted proof that corporations matter more than people in our society, you need not look further than the New York Times article on how 22-year-old Stephanie Smith was poisoned by the O157:H7 strain of coli that contaminated a "burger" from food giant Cargill. As we learn in the article, this isn't a case where a diseased animal somehow found its way into the food chain. It is a harrowing account of how industrial food is killing and maiming us.

Stephanie, a children's dance teacher who rarely ate meat, did consume a hamburger her mother cooked for Sunday dinner in 2007. Not long afterward, Stephanie suffered diarrhea, then bloody diarrhea and finally her kidneys shut down. Doctors put her into a nine-week coma (e coli poisoning reportedly hurts worse than childbirth), and now she may never walk again.

In the article, we learn that the burger she ate was created from so many gut-churning quasi-meat components that tracing the problem back to its source almost becomes meaningless:

"[T]he hamburgers were made from a mix of slaughterhouse trimmings and a mash-like product derived from scraps . . . 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."

"Mash-like product"? And people wonder why I am a vegetarian?

In addition to confirming that our food system is broken, the article illustrates how our political system fails us because corporate cash matters more than individual contributions. Yes, a talented politician such as President Obama succeeded in attracting millions of supporters, many of whom sent him relatively small campaign donations. But their collective voices do not deliver a unified message in the same way that food corporation lobbyists can capture the ears of the people who matter at the White House and in Congress.

If this were not the case, would we have a system where corporations can produce toxic mystery meat as long as doing so is 25% cheaper? In a true perversion of transparency, "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." Profits before people.

The article goes on to quote Dr. Jeffrey Bender from the University of Minnesota who warns, "Ground beef is not a completely safe product." He also notes that instead of making us safer, our current meat inspection system is "going a bit in the opposite direction."

Even that mild criticism means that Dr. Bender will likely face enormous pressure to retract his statement or say no more. In these cash-strapped times, the academic freedom to speak out often runs afoul of the pressure to remain silent, to keep the government and corporate grants flowing.

The rest of the unnerving article is a litany of sickening corporate abuse. The speedup of the line at slaughterhouses makes inspection meaningless as the animals whiz by. Slaughterhouse workers protest that they are not given time to clean their knives, even though the new strains of e coli are hideously virulent pathogens unlike any we have seen before. (Incubated in those Confined Animal Feeding Operations perhaps? And if you think ours are bad, just imagine what they must be like in Uruguay.)

The article also notes that hamburger today not only contains animal products but bread crumbs and spices that aren't even listed on the label. Amazing indeed since there is growing evidence that imported spices are an increasingly worrisome source of food contamination.

One of my biggest surprises while covering agriculture in the Seventies and Eighties was how much money and time food corporations expend in fighting for specific language in regulations that allow them to do things that would literally make their customers sick, if they knew. What you eat is the product of intense lobbying in Washington, where loosening a regulation or adding a loophole blackens the corporate bottom line even though it would make most people see red.

Yet at a deeper level, it really doesn't matter what the regulations say when food corporations consciously ignore complaints about basic sanitation. The article notes that Cargill's own inspectors had complained that the plant that produced the burger that poisoned Stephanie suffered from cases where there were hamburger patties on the floor and "gnarly" old bits of meat in the grinders. Yet the company apparently did nothing to correct the problems, at least in time to save Stephanie.

But won't the massive lawsuits the companies face pressure them to make our food safer? They help, but they are no panacea. Lawsuits typically drag on for years and years, and those that settle before trial often require that all records are sealed, so we never learn what the problem really was. Moreover, Cargill could end up off the hook if evidences proves that the contaminated meat came from a subsidiary, which is why corporations push back against any attempt at real transparency.

So what should a meat eater do? Find a local, sustainable farmer and buy direct. Or find an old-fashioned butcher shop where they will let you see how they produce their hamburger. Or you can reward those corporations that push back against abuses. Costco tests the trimmings for e coli before making its hamburger. And, though Tyson disputes the allegation, Costco says that their policy is why the slaughterhouse will not sell to them. On a larger scale, you can support politicians who vote for legislation that favors sustainable agriculture over short-term, bottom-line thinking.

We should also praise and support the New York Times for this article. It takes time and talent to investigate industries that spend a fortune to remain under the public radar. Every word must be bullet-proof or they could find themselves facing a lawsuit. Remember when Oprah was sued by the Texas cattlemen for "disparagement" of their product? It takes the deep pockets of news organizations such as the New York Times to produce, publicize and defend stories such as these.

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I read this yesterday. I'm now a former vegetarian and this reminded me of why I became one in the first place. This is not the first incident of its kind by any stretch. Do you remember when the humane society discovered that slaughterhouse in California slaughtering downed cattle? The humane society exposed them after they had sold the meat to schools, not the USDA or FDA. It is a total abuse of power. I think I'm just going to stop eating hamburger altogether. I had been buying mine from Trader Joe's, but now I see they had a big burger recall in 2007. And yes, the NY Times is to be commended for this. It is just so disturbing.
I am more and more impressed with the work that the Humane Society is doing. Thanks for reminding me of this. These incidents give me chills.
Yes, and in thinking about this some more, I can't imagine what this teacher's mother must be going through. She bought Angus beef, and it was probably more expensive than the regular. Here Safeway touts angus beef as if it were gold. So we're not just being poisoned, we're paying extra for it.
I read the article today and was immediately glad that I get my hamburger from my grocer by buying a boneless bottom round roast or boneless chuck roast when it's on sale and having it ground for me. That way I know what I'm getting--not trimmings from out of state or from the wrong part of a cow as the article said. And my grocer grinds it for free--the price is always under $2 per pound. Bottom round is 90-95% lean and ground beef with that level of leanness is usually pushing $4/lb. The chuck is about 85% lean which is usually somewhere around $3/lb. So, I save money and get better quality with better assurances that it is not contaminated. Then I handle it safely! I freeze it immediately in 1 lb packages and don't let it get close to room temp when thawing it.
Last--never, ever buy your ground beef in those pre-formed tubes. That was the source of much of the contaminated beef. Cheap Basti is also "Safe food Bastid"!
Walter, good thinking. But make sure they thoroughly clean the grinder - or maybe it would be even better to grind it yourself?
Walter - you might also want to sign this petition sponsored by Consumers Union - to stop the feeding of chicken feces and other little to cattle. Does it ever end?

Yuck! I think rather than talking about finding a local farm/butcher, we should actually do it!