E. coli contamination in meat is the ultimate example of “crap in; crap out.” Not only can Escherichia coli 0157:H7 make you violently sick or kill you, it is a grim reminder of where the beef you ate came from and the fact that the cow didn’t die voluntarily.
That’s why big meat and the government agencies that protect it want to keep the focus on beef packagers like Topps Foods and Cargill Inc. If the E. coli problem can be blamed on packaging workers who didn’t wash their hand or held over day-old meat or didn’t wear a hairnet, then no one’s going to ask about the other s-word: slaughterhouse.
Lucky for big meat, state and federal lawmakers have long anticipated the need to protect businesses–if not people–when outbreaks of potentially lethal pathogens occur in meat and enacted shield laws. That’s why the identities of restaurants and grocery stores in California who served beef from a mad cow in 2003 were kept secret as well as the identities of Texas and Alabama ranches which gave rise to mad cows soon after.
So even as 67-year-old Elizabeth, NJ-based Topps Meat Company shuts down after having to recall 21.7 million pounds of ground beef products it won’t snitch on its slaughterhouse like the beaten woman who won’t answer “who did this to you?”
Neither has Wayzata, MN-based Cargill Inc., which had to recall 840,000 pounds of Cargill Meat Solutions ground beef products from Wal-Mart Stores Inc owned Sam’s Club, named its slaughterhouse supplier or suppliers.
Of course, federal inspectors like Dr. Lester Friedlander who trained vets for the USDA until 1995 have long warned about hygienic anarchy in the slaughterhouses.
“My plant in Pennsylvania processed 1,800 cows a day, 220 per hour,” says Friedlander. The meat regularly contained, “[h]ormones, antibiotics, hair, feces, cancers, tumors.”
Stopping the slaughterhouse assembly line costs about $5,000 a minute says Friedlander, so pressure is intense on veterinarians “to look the other way” and it is “tacitly demanded” by their employer, the federal government.
Profit watching causes other health risks in the slaughterhouse too, Friedlander says; it costs more money to make “two incisions in the cow” so inspectors just make one, which cuts the spinal cord, spreading disease.
But rather than fix the inspection system, after four people died from Jack in the Box beef in 1993 and 25 million pounds of contaminated ground beef from Hudson Foods were recalled in 1997, the government gave more, not less control to the slaughterhouses under the Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) system.
Dubbed “Have a Cup of Coffee and Pray” by critics who say it lets the fox guard the chicken coop, HACCP is an honor system in which slaughterhouses police themselves, federal inspectors simply auditing compliance with their self created inspection systems. (“And how did you do in September?” they’re probably asking now.)
In 2000, 62 percent of slaughterhouse workers interviewed for a study by the Government Accountability Project and Public Citizen said they had allowed feces, vomit and other contamination through the line that they would have stopped before HACCP; 20 percent said they had been told not to document violations.
It’s obvious that Topps and Cargill didn’t grow their own E. coli. It’s a “systemic problem” says Fast Food Nation author Eric Schlosser, “starting in the feedlots, spreading in the slaughterhouses, and winding up in the ground beef at plants that make frozen patties. Putting Topps out of business isn’t going to solve that fundamental problem.” But who did it?
* The Grand Island, NE Swift plant that recently departing (timing!) Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns stripped of its right to ship to Japan in February 2006?
* The Florida cattle plant where a USDA inspector told Slaughterhouse author Gail Eisnitz cattle were skinned while fully alive and his superiors did nothing when alerted?
* Or the notorious Iowa Beef Packers (IBP) plant in Wallula, WA where second legger Ramon Moreno whose job was to cut hocks off carcasses at a rate of 309 an hour told the Washington Post the fully alive animals, “blink. They make noises. The head moves, the eyes are wide and looking around” even as he cuts.
IBF, which was recently bought by Tyson Foods, was charged with smuggling 2,000 illegal Guatemalan workers across the Mexico border to work in its slaughterhouses in 2001?
(Slaughterhouse work is so aversive, inmates released from prisons to work in the Smithfield Foods’ Tar Heel plants preferred prison and quit, wrote the New York Times.)
Big meat doesn’t want you to know which slaughterhouses are the culprits. Having you know what is in the meat is bad enough–but showing kicking cows hanging upside down on the kill floor, cows which clearly don’t want to die, can really kill your appetite.