The way much of the meat consumed by Americans is being processed and mechanically tenderized exposes them to a higher risk of E. coli poisoning, according to a yearlong investigation by the Kansas City Star
The processing involves blading the meat and injecting marinades and flavorings in it, which also infuses pathogens deeper into the meat, the Star reported. When the meat is not cooked sufficiently, people then can get sick or even die.
Increasingly found in grocery stores and sold to hotels and family-style restaurants, the process is used by more than 90 percent of beef producers, according to a 2008 USDA survey. Meat undergoing the mechanical tenderizing process has been recalled eight times between 2000 and 2009 and has sickened at least 100 people, but health advocates suspect that number is far higher.
The American Meat Institute, an industry lobbying group, has defended the product as safe, but institute officials recently said they can't comment further until they see the results of a pending risk assessment by the meat safety division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Star reported.
The Star's story follows recent exposure of "pink slime" in beef, a processing by-product that results in ammonia gas or citric acid embedded in the meat to kill bacteria. Following the controversy and heightened consumer concern, some companies and organizations discontinued the additive. Though it's illegal to sell to consumers, pink slime can comprise 15 percent of ground beef without additional labeling, according to ABC.
The United States produces 26 billion pounds of beef a year from 34 million cattle — more than any other country. The industry employs 260,000 people, most of them based in the Midwest.
The Star examined the largest beef packers including the big four— Tyson Foods of Arkansas, Cargill Meat Solutions of Wichita, National Beef of Kansas City, and JBS USA Beef of Greeley, Colo.
The comprehensive investigation covers a lot of ground. Here are some of the highlights:
- A recent lawsuit against National Steak and JBS noted that there are an estimated 73,480 illnesses linked to E. coli O157:H7 infections from all food sources each year in the United States, leading to 2,168 hospitalizations and 61 deaths. The Food Safety and Inspection Service denies this, claiming no “consistent trend” has emerged in recalls of contaminated beef, the USDA and beef industry officials point out that E. coli illnesses have dropped dramatically in recent years.
- Large beef plants, based on volume alone, contribute disproportionately to the incidence of meat-borne pathogens. A USDA study published in March showed that from 2007 through 2011, E. coli positives at very small plants resulted, The Star found, in only 465,000 pounds of contaminated beef. A slightly lower rate of positive tests at large plants, however, produced more than 51 million pounds of contaminated beef. Most of the lawsuits Seattle attorney Bill Marler has filed against the meat industry have been against these meat packers. Maher has won a total of $250 million in judgments on behalf of children who suffered kidney failure by eating bad hamburger.
- The meat, which comes from different cattle, makes it difficult for officials to track the source of the contaminated beef. The industry has resisted warnings on meat for chefs and consumers to cook beef thoroughly because they fear it will lead to sale declines, so most people and chains don't know that they're buying bladed beef. Not sufficiently cooking the contaminated beef helps pathogens to survive. However, charring the meat might not be enough -- a 2011 Journal of Food Protection article warned that even cooking contaminating steaks at 160 degrees on a gas grill might not kill all E. coli bacteria. The USDA has avoided countless pleas to label bladed meat for years. It's impossible to tell the difference, advocates say.
- Big Beef is injecting millions of dollars of growth hormones and antibiotics into cattle, partly to fatten them quickly for market. But many experts believe that years of overuse and misuse of such drugs contributes to antibiotic-resistant pathogens in humans, meaning illnesses once treated with a regimen of antibiotics are much harder to control.
- Big Beef is using its political pull, public relations campaigns and the supportive science it sponsors to influence federal dietary guidelines and recast steaks and burgers as health foods people can eat every day. It even persuaded the American Heart Association to certify beef as “heart healthy.”
- Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP), the group responsible for meat inspections, is implemented by meat producers, not the government, which advocates say is a conflict of interest. The government requires meat plants to verify that their food safety systems work, but it does not require them to actually test meat, nor does it set standards for plants that do. Plants that do test meat must make results available to federal inspectors if asked, but they are not required to alert the government of results that are positive for pathogens. In some cases, plants were able to use their HACCP programs to “sidestep regulations.” One of the loopholes a USDA audit noted this year that a large plant shipped 80,000 pounds of beef despite multiple positive E. coli tests.
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