How Would You Like Your Burger? Safe? Or Cheap? Part 1


Last Sunday’s New York Times contained a long report about e-coli bacteria in beef. The story focuses on a young woman who ate some tainted beef and is now paralyzed. The reporter uses traces the beef she ate to point out how and why tainted beef is sold in American grocery stores.

No surprise, the story’s point is that tainted meat enters the food supply system because of failures of government oversight and because of greed.

I think there’s more to the story.

First let me say that what follows is in no way an attempt to minimize the suffering the woman has endured, or that I am blaming her or her family for what happened. (So don’t send me any snarky emails claiming that’s my intent. It’s not. Period.)

The Times report traces the origin of the meat in a package of frozen beef patties. The meat was packaged by Cargill, and sold at Sam’s Club as “American Chef’s Selection Angus Beef Patties.” In this case, consumers were obviously misled: The package is labeled “Angus Beef,” but as the Times story notes, the patties contain little, if any, “angus” beef.

. . . 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.

According to the report, this scenario is common in the U.S.: large corporations that sell pre-packaged frozen beef often buy from multiple suppliers, but there’s no way to check for sources of e-coli. The article does not say, but implies, that the problem is with pre-packaged, “factory”-packaged ground beef, rather than fresh beef ground on-site at grocery stores.

No surprise, the Times story has provoked outrage and hand-wringing and attacks on the FDA and Big Corporate Food and farmers (who somehow always manage to get blamed when something goes wrong with food.) (A few weeks back, I read a blog entry whose author blamed farmers for the national “obesity epidemic.” Go figure.)

Okay. Fine. I’d like to point out another side of the story: Americans are getting precisely the kind of meat they want, because what Americans want is cheap, convenient food; indeed, I’d go so far as to say that Americans DEMAND cheap, convenient food.

Next: The price of "convenient" and "cheap."