“There are certain things only a government can do. And one of those things is ensuring that the foods we eat are safe and do not cause us harm.”
– President Obama
Food safety news has been generating a lot of buzz.
The New York Times kicked things off with a front page article that was a real stunner even for veterans of the food safety wars who had long ago given up on rare beef and fast food hamburgers. It shocked on two levels as it tracked the patently execrable path of contaminated beef from slaughterhouse to supermarket, and recounted the tragic results when the pathogen was consumed by a 22 year old children’s dance instructor from Minnesota.
If you think that your supermarket’s shrink-wrapped packages of ground beef come from hunks of beef passed through meat grinders, the Times article will take you on an eye-opening, stomach-churning journey. In the Minnesota case, which involved a “premium” store brand known as American Chef’s Selection Angus Beef Patties, the largest component in the mixture was also the cheapest: slaughterhouse trimmings known as 50/50 (half meat/half fat). The fat level was reduced with the addition of a leaner, mash-like substance that had been treated with ammonia to halt the growth of bacteria.
Lower-grade cuts of beef are more likely to have had contact with E. coli-carrying feces. Since most large-scale processors test for bacteria only after ingredients are ground together, the source of contamination is hard to identify and contain. In the Times report, the ground beef came from suppliers in 3 states plus the country of Uruguay. With meat from thousands of untested cattle processed and combined in a single day at any one of the suppliers’ facilities, it was impossible to pinpoint the origins of the outbreak.
Until our arcane and archaic food safety laws catch up with our globalized system of food production, we need to stay informed and vigilant. To that end, this fall the US Department of Health and Human Services and Department of Agriculture launched Foodsafety.gov. The website pulls information from numerous, scattered government agencies (including the Food and Drug Administration and the Center for Disease Control) that share responsibility for the safety of our food supply. You can sign up for email alerts or RSS feeds of product recalls and food safety announcements, report problems, and send e-cards to alert all your friends to food safety issues.