While you were relaxing between Christmas and New Year’s, the New York Times published this horrifying piece of investigative journalism on a company called Beef Products Inc. Seems the folks at BPI, applying their good old American ingenuity, thought, “Hey, we’ve got all these fatty trimmings so disgusting they’re normally put into pet food. Is there any way we could shove them in a hamburger and feed them to kids?” So they did. In order to kill all the salmonella and e.coli, they gassed the trimmings with ammonia before sending them off to be put into hamburgers earmarked for McDonald’s, Burger King, and lots and lots of schools.
Problem was (apart from the fact that the meat smelled like ammonia), the process didn’t really kill all the salmonella and e. coli. Nevertheless, the Department of Agriculture was so impressed with BPI’s ammonia gassing method, “that in 2007, when the department began routine testing of meat used in hamburger sold to the general public, they exempted Beef Products.” Heckuva job, Aggie.
This is what’s known as “regulatory capture” – when the agencies responsible for regulating a particular industry are so much in the pocket of the industry that regulation consists of pretty much whatever the industry wants. I’m no food safety expert, but from the outside it appears that while the Obama administration has certainly taken some steps to improve federal oversight of food manufacturing, after the prior eight years of neglect – and really, a record of neglect that goes back to Ronald Reagan’s election – there’s a long, long way to go. Just before the Times investigation was published, an Oklahoma company called National Steak and Poultry recalled 248,000 pounds of beef that appeared to have been infected with e. coli, the result of a process called “mechanical tenderization” that, among other things, seems to move pathogens from the outside to the inside of a piece of meat.
As a point of comparison, in European Union countries, not only do they have much stricter regulation at the point of production, but every piece of meat you buy in the supermarket has an identifying code that enables it to be traced back all the way to the animal it came from. Damn socialists, with their non-poisonous meat.
-- Paul Waldman