How Safe Is Our Meat: E. Coli and Salmonella Contamination Dangers

The rash of E. coli and salmonella poisonings have proven that century-old USDA meat inspection laws are badly in need of revamping to protect us from E. coli and salmonella contamination dangers.

| December 1996/January 1997

  • 159-021-01
    So much for the local butcher. Nowadays, packaged meat goes straight from meat packer to grocery.

  • 159-021-01

USDA meat inspection laws must be changed to protect us from E. coli and salmonella contamination dangers. Have election-year politics provided a solution? 

While the slogan of the eighties was "Where's the beef?," during the nineties it might very well be "What's in the beef?" Around the turn of the century, Upton Sinclair's popular book, The Jungle, documented the unsanitary conditions that existed in the Chicago slaughterhouses.The public's response to this book prompted the government to pass the Meat Inspection Act in 1906. The act empowered the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) to require sanitary equipment, conditions, and methods and to ban the use of harmful chemicals and preservatives in slaughtering and packing plants, but we didn't live happily ever after. Most of us remember the Jack-in-the-Box incident a few years ago in the Northwest where 500 people became ill and two children died after eating undercooked hamburger containing a new strain of E. coli (E. coli 0157:H7). Despite the shock that greeted the incident, this was not an isolated circumstance.

The Center for Disease Control (CDC) estimates that 9,000 Americans die each year from foodborne illness from E. coli and salmonella contamination dangers, with others becoming ill from bacterial, chemical, and pesticide residues mostly found in foods of animal origin. Unless you've been trapped in a well for the last six months, you've heard of the almost comically termed mad cow disease that's spreading throughout Europe and is caused by diseased animal parts in the cattle feed. We may feel safe in the assumption that the illness is isolated to another continent, but our own livestock farms continue the very same practice. In a 1985 report, the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) announced that the current federal inspection procedures were inadequate to protect the public from meat-related diseases. After 90 years of the USDA using inspection procedures that are almost universally acknowledged as substandard, President Clinton declared (four months before the 1996 election) that a complete overhaul of the USDA meat and poultry inspection rules would give American families "the security to know that the food they eat is as safe as it can be." Our question is: "How safe can it possibly be?"

Down on the Farm

In case any of us haven't yet disposed of the notion that poultry farms are pastoral scenes where clucking chickens roam the barnyard while cows moo in the pasture, be assured that in the nineties this is a rare scene when it comes to raising commercial beef and poultry. Chickens (or broilers) never see a barnyard but instead spend their short lives in a windowless warehouse where every aspect of the birds' environment is controlled in order to make them grow as quickly and inexpensively as possible. Poultry Digest reports that it isn't uncommon to have as many as 80,000 birds per warehouse. This is too large a flock to create any sense of social (or pecking) order among the chickens, so they go crazy pecking each other, sometimes to death. Since dead chickens don't snake a profit, it's a common practice to debeak the birds to make life easier in the crowded warehouse.

So much for henhouse heaven—let's move on to chicken cuisine. To a chicken breeder, a fatter chicken means more profit per pound. These birds grow so fast and so fat that many develop skeletal disorders which prevent them from walking or standing. Fortunately for them, their life span averages only about two months instead of an expected 15 to 20 years for a free-roaming chicken. Since their laboratory feed is loaded with antibiotics, sulfa drugs, arsenic compounds, growth hormones, and pesticides, these birds aren't exactly a picture of health. Dietary deficiencies can result in retarded growth, deformities, blindness, and disease. A government report found that 90 percent of our warehouse chickens are infected with chicken cancer (leukosis).

But the greatest danger to the consumer is salmonella poisoning, a leading cause of foodborne sickness, according to the CDC. In 1992, the USDA estimated that 40 percent of all poultry is contaminated with salmonella. Now, under the new USDA regulations that will go into effect at the end of next year, one in five broilers and nearly half of all ground poultry can contain salmonella and pass USDA inspection. It's a common practice for breeders to add otherwise wasted chicken parts to the feed for extra protein, recycling the salmonella. Salmonella contamination in feed was first reported in 1948 and very little has been done about it since. By the end of the eighties, 49 percent of all animal feed was contaminated. Salmonella spreads further when the birds are thrown into a chill tank, or as it is disturbingly known by those in the field, "fecal soup," which cools them down while adding water to their weight (up to 8 percent in water weight gain is legal). Bagging the birds in plastic before the bath would greatly reduce the spreading of salmonella but would cut millions of dollars out of the poultry industry's profit margin.

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