Michael Pollan, the author of the terrific book The Omnivore’s Dilemma (which at some point I will get around to reviewing), wrote an article in today’s New York Times Magazine on the spinach disaster that should be read by all.
He makes the case that the food industry in the United States is a disaster waiting to happen. The recent spate of illness and death from the E. coli O157:H7 contaminated spinach could be just a tiny preview of a much more widespread poisoning that could affect any or all of us. Even now, the spinach problem is just the tip of the iceberg.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that our food supply now sickens 76 million Americans every year, putting more than 300,000 of them in the hospital, and killing 5,000.
The reason for these staggering numbers is the same reason meat and produce are so much less expensive at the grocery store than at the farmer’s market–giant industrial agri-conglomerates that, thanks to efficiencies of scale (along with a little help from Uncle Sam), can bring food to market cheaply. But in this case cheaply comes at a price, the price being the risk we take when we consume these foods.
Pollan describes, as he did in his book, the steps taken by the meat processors to rid meat of the dangerous strain of E. coli. A few years ago there was a major problem with E. coli contamination of hamburger arising from contact with the manure of the cattle being slaughtered. Instead of taking steps to ensure the cleanliness of the facilities, the meat processors began irradiating the meat/manure combination instead. As Pollen writes, “Sterilizing the manure rather than removing it from our food.” Lovely, eh?
A major part of the contamination problem arises from the size and centralization of the food processing industry.
Today 80 percent of America’s beef is slaughtered by four companies, 75 percent of the precut salads are processed by two and 30 percent of the milk by just one company.
If your local rancher slaughters a steer or two and somehow a part of the meat made into hamburger gets contaminated, a few people will probably be affected. And it will be pretty easy to track down the source of the problem. If a slaughterhouse processing 400 cattle per hour has a contamination, it’s a much more difficult problem. In the first case, all the contaminated hamburger is from one, or at most two, cows; in the second case, the hamburger can be made of parts of literally hundreds of cows. However many hamburgers you can get from one or two cows, multiply that by several hundred, and that gives you the scope of the potential for the industrial-sized contamination.
In the good old days a few years back a natural cycle occurred. Farmers grew silage that fed the animals; the animals produced waste that fertilized the silage. Now giant farming conglomerates produce huge quantities of hybrid corn that feed the animals (and make the high-fructose corn syrup that feeds to many of us). The animal waste, instead of being used for fertilizer (which is now produced chemically) is now a major disposal problem.
The lethal strain of E. coli known as 0157:H7, responsible for this latest outbreak of food poisoning, was unknown before 1982; it is believed to have evolved in the gut of feedlot cattle. These are animals that stand around in their manure all day long, eating a diet of grain that happens to turn a cow’s rumen into an ideal habitat for E. coli 0157:H7. (The bug can’t survive long in cattle living on grass.) Industrial animal agriculture produces more than a billion tons of manure every year, manure that, besides being full of nasty microbes like E. coli 0157:H7 (not to mention high concentrations of the pharmaceuticals animals must receive so they can tolerate the feedlot lifestyle), often ends up in places it shouldn’t be, rather than in pastures, where it would not only be harmless but also actually do some good. To think of animal manure as pollution rather than fertility is a relatively new (and industrial) idea.
The first reaction of any sane person upon learning of this disaster in the making is to turn to the government to provide some regulation to all this. Unfortunately, in many cases, the government regulations are what got us into the mess in the first place.
As Pollan explains in the article and at length in his book, our friends at the U.S.D.A. (the wonderful folks that brought us the Food Pyramid) mandate that ALL slaughterhouses, regardless of size, have a bathroom, a shower, and office facilities for the sole use of the U.S.D.A. inspectors who inspect there. For the enormous operations, those slaughtering hundreds of cattle per hour, these regulations don’t pose huge problems. The cost of the extra facilities can be amortized over thousands and thousands of head of cattle, increasing the price at the grocery store very little.
A few small slaughter houses (which still have to maintain all the facilities for the inspectors) are in operation here and there, but of necessity must charge significantly more to the local rancher bringing in a few head of cattle. And since these operations are few and far between, the local rancher has to pay more to haul his cattle to them. As a result, if you want to purchase local beef at your farmer’s market, you pay through the nose for it.
How about if these ranchers simply slaughter their own beef as my grandfather used to do with his hogs and sell the meat? No can do, says the U.S.D.A. If you’re going to sell it, it has to be processed in a U.S.D.A approved and inspected facility with all the special restrooms, showers, and offices. What about if we test the meat for any kind of bacterial contamination before we sell it? Believe it or not, the U.S.D.A. doesn’t have standards for bacterial contamination–it only mandates what kind of facility can be used for processing.
How can we fight against this nonsense? I don’t think there is a political way to do it. How many politicians have you ever heard promising to straighten out the U.S.D.A? How many attacking the idiotic food processing regulatory rules? I suspect that with the election coming up many will be promising to regulate even more to avoid another spinach disaster.
I believe the only way we can win, at least individually is to buy as much of our meat and produce as we can locally. We’ve all seen what’s happened with the organic food movement over the past few years. It started out as a sort of hippy, back-to-the-earth kind of deal, and, due to consumer demand, has become mainstream. If enough people buy local, in time, the same thing will happen. Supermarkets and restaurants will advertise ‘locally grown’ produce and meat. It won’t happen over night, but with enough demand, it will happen.
Until it does, look upon the extra few bucks you spend on food produced in your area as insurance against infection with all kinds of food-borne pathogens. And look upon it as an investment in the future of food processing in America. Protect your health and help out your local farmers and ranchers. Shop farmer’s markets whenever you can.