Pink Slime: (More) History and A Dollop of Sermonizing. Part Three

Part One --- Part Two --- Part Four --- Part Five Also see my two initial posts on Pink Slime here and here.

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By the early '00s, Roth’s method of manufacturing LFTB had been perfected (more or less; Roth is a guy who believes in constant improvement and refinement). BPI was selling LFTB to a host of customers, including grocery chains, food processors, and clients in what is known as the "hotel, restaurant, insitutional" trade (HRI).

Were there problems? Of course. In 2009, a reporter for the New York Times detailed some of the woes BPI encountered with its product --- but noted that BPI’s processing was regarded as more safe than most.

Which brings me to a point worth pondering: Journalists have been quick to report instances when BPI and other companies have been “caught” sending out product that was supposedly contaminated with a strain of e. coli or tainted with salmonella. But here’s what those reports rarely mention:

First, many times a company will recall a product if they suspect it’s tainted. They don’t have proof from tests, but, for whatever reason, they suspect a batch may be tainted, and so they pull it. Suspicion and proof are not the same thing.

Second, reporters rarely mention a crucial fact about testing methods: Those change constantly. And I mean from year to year, even from month to month. I picked up on this when I was researching the use of hormones in cattle production.

In the mid-1950s, cattle producers began adding diethylstilbestrol, or DES, to cattle feed. (It accelerated growth, so that cattle reached market weight faster, and on less feed. At the time, making meat at lower cost came close to being a national priority. Politics, foreign policy, and an educated consumer society drove the urgency.)

From the mid-1950s until 1979, when DES was banned, the tests used by the USDA and FDA to determine the presence of the hormone changed dramatically and often. The tests became both more powerful and more “accurate.” As results changed, so, too, did the definition of “acceptable” levels of use. What was an acceptable level in, say, 1958, had become “unacceptable” by 1963 because new test procedures allowed investigators to find more, if you will. 

That’s also true for e. coli. Researchers find “more” e. coli in foodstuffs in part because they’ve got far better tests now than they did in, say, 1986.

I hasten to add that, unlike humans, who evolve slowly, bacteria experience a much speedier evolutionary process; they also have the ability to become and to transmit resistance, which, in turn, means that they can change as they evolve.) So between rapid evolution on one hand, and better testing on the other, it’s no wonder that we hear so much about “contaminated” foods: We find more contamination because we have better ways of finding it.

But I gather from comments made by readers of my first two PS blog entries that many scientists believe that modern methods of cattle feeding may contribute to both the quantity and the virulence of e. coli bacteria. I’ve not had a chance to read up on that, but I’ll take their word for it. (For now.) (This is a good time to remind readers that I’m a HISTORIAN, not a chemist, microbiologist, or animal nutritionist.) (*1)

Next: Dog food, byproducts, and profits

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*1: A reader named Christopher Gordon posted a detailed comment about this in response to an earlier PS blog entry. I thank him for the time he took to comment:

I think you need to brush up on your knowledge about E. coli. It is one species of bacteria with many strains -- not all are harmful, not all can live in the same environments, and most are very specific and named. The strains normally present in grazing cattle have adapted to living in a higher pH than those normally present in humans. Any harmful strain in grazing cattle would not likely survive in our gut.

However, grain-fed cattle have much lower intestinal pH, and bacteria which colonize it will be able to survive in our intestines. This is where the dangerous strains of E. coil come to play -- they can survive in the acidic environment of cattle intestines, and can also survive in ours. What makes them dangerous are toxins secreted by these particular strains.

If you do a little research, you'll find scientific papers which show that finishing grain-fed cattle with a period of grazing or hay will correct the pH and significantly reduce or eliminate the nasty strains of E. coli. Additionally, the harmful strains are virtually unknown in cattle that are slaughtered after only grazing (no grain-feeding at all).