Sunday, January 31, 2010

"The Jungle" redux

I've been sitting on this one for a while.

Ever hear that Teddy Roosevelt tossed his sausage out the window when he read a particularly revolting passage in Upton Sinclair's The Jungle at breakfast one morning?

The Roosevelt incident, I'm told, is apocryphal. But the impact of Sinclair's novel is not. It led to the Meat Inspection Act, the Pure Food and Drug Act, and, eventually, to the creation of the federal Food and Drug Administration.

Well, the New York Times broke a new "Jungle" story on December 30th last year. I didn't see it till a week later when Mike Adams of picked it up in his article,

Window cleaning chemical injected into fast food hamburger meat

The gist of the story? A certain company, Beef Products, Inc., has come up with what they thought was a brilliant plan to maximize efficient use of every scrap of beef trimming in their meat processing plants. And so, we are told, a majority of the hamburger sold in the United States, including "beef sold to McDonald's, Burger King, school lunches and other fast food restaurants" is being injected with ammonia. Why? Because at high enough levels, ammonia will kill the E. coli, salmonella, and whatever other bugs might be present in these beef scrapings.

The only problem? Well, actually, two:

1) It takes a lot of ammonia to kill the pathogens.

2) High ammonia content leads to customer complaints about taste and smell.

So Beef Products, Inc., has engaged in a not-so-delicate balancing act as it attempts, unsuccessfully, to fulfill its fiduciary duties related to health while it works even harder to avoid the problems of poor aesthetics.

Here's a summary of the story:
Officials at the United States Department of Agriculture endorsed [Beef Products, Inc.]’s ammonia treatment, and have said it destroys E. coli “to an undetectable level.” They decided it was so effective that in 2007, when the department began routine testing of meat used in hamburger sold to the general public, they exempted Beef Products.

With the U.S.D.A.’s stamp of approval, the company’s processed beef has become a mainstay in America’s hamburgers. McDonald’s, Burger King and other fast-food giants use it as a component in ground beef, as do grocery chains. The federal school lunch program used an estimated 5.5 million pounds of the processed beef last year alone.

But government and industry records obtained by The New York Times show that in testing for the school lunch program, E. coli and salmonella pathogens have been found dozens of times in Beef Products meat, challenging claims by the company and the U.S.D.A. about the effectiveness of the treatment. Since 2005, E. coli has been found 3 times and salmonella 48 times, including back-to-back incidents in August [2009] in which two 27,000-pound batches were found to be contaminated. The meat was caught before reaching lunch-rooms trays.

In July, school lunch officials temporarily banned their hamburger makers from using meat from a Beef Products facility in Kansas because of salmonella — the third suspension in three years, records show. Yet the facility remained approved by the U.S.D.A. for other customers. . . .

The company says its processed beef . . . is used in a majority of the hamburger sold nationwide. But it has remained little known outside industry and government circles.

Federal officials agreed to the company’s request that the ammonia be classified as a “processing agent” and not an ingredient that would be listed on labels. . . .
Besides the fact that the USDA itself has gotten involved in a cover-up of sorts, reclassifying ammonia as a "processing agent," I think it might be helpful to consider what Beef Products' "processed beef" is really all about.

It's hamburger--"ground beef." Right?

Well. Not quite. . . .

The author of the New York Times article offered this mild description: "a mashlike substance frozen into blocks or chips." A USDA microbiologist, obviously not impressed with the . . . ahem . . . "product," described it a bit more graphically back in 2002. He called it "pink slime."

But what is in this "mashlike substance," this "pink slime," besides the "processing agent" that has now been revealed as ammonia?

Let's see . . .

It includes "fatty slaughterhouse trimmings" which includes "most of the material from the outer surfaces of the carcass" and, along with such "material," since E. coli and salmonella are more prevalent in fatty trimmings than in higher grades of beef, "larger microbiological populations."

And how does Beef Products, Inc. process these "materials"?

Well, they liquefy the fat and use a centrifuge to extract what protein they can. Then they send this mash "through pipes where it is exposed to ammonia gas, and then flash frozen and compressed."

The Times article, I think, makes clear: Beef Products, Inc. has permitted aesthetics to beat safety for many years, and only after the Times pursued the story did the USDA finally decide to rouse itself and reconsider whether maybe Beef Products, Inc. and its strange product ought to receive inspections like all its competitors do.


See what industrial food companies--and the U.S. government--will do to save three cents a pound on beef. Read p. 4 in the New York Times story.

But for another view of industrial food production, see this article from USA Today. --Interesting!
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