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The Dangers Of Mystery Meat

Aug 17, 2002 | The Washington Post Last month one of the largest food processors in the world, ConAgra, recalled nearly 19 million pounds of ground beef that had been processed at a single plant in Greeley, Colo. It did so at the suggestion of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which could only suggest because it doesn't have the power to order such a recall and won't until Congress gets the guts to face down the meat-packing industry.

This particular outbreak of E. coli has stricken at least 47 people in 14 states, and one death in Ohio is listed by the Centers for Disease Control as possibly linked to the ConAgra contamination. E. coli kills an average of 61 Americans every year and poisons 73,000. "Poisons" is a better word than the common euphemism "sickens." Even folks who survive E. coli have been a lot more than just "sick."

The greatest risk is to young children, who have weaker immune systems and who can suffer and die in the most horrible way: bloody diarrhea, holes drilled in skulls to relieve pressure on the brain, kidneys that shut down. Toddlers who slip from fear to dementia, not even recognizing the parents who stand helpless by their hospital beds.

Yes, as the food giants and the USDA tell us, E. coli can be wiped out of any batch of hamburger if the meat is only cooked properly. But a system that prides itself on speed and convenience is not one that can expect cooks, in the home or at the fast-food joint, to do it right every time. And even when meat is cooked enough to kill E. coli, its uncooked juices and leavings can still contaminate other foods prepared in the same area, such as chopped vegetables that won't be cooked at all.

Factory cattle are fed so much corn, a departure from their evolutionary preference for grass that their guts become much more acidic. The variety of E. coli that is bred in that Darwinian environment is much more tolerant of both the cow's stomach acid and the human's, and thus much more likely to attack a person who would easily fend off the weaker cousins of the acid-hardened variety.

The USDA, which some of us naively thought was there to protect consumers, really exists to promote the sale of U.S. farm products, at home and abroad. A recent General Accounting Office report faults the meat inspection system for relying too much on voluntary industry compliance and employing scientific methods that members of the understaffed inspection force don't even understand.

The myth that bigger is better has crushed most smaller meat packers, leaving many carnivorous families with no choice but modern mystery meat. So far we've been lucky: We haven't yet suffered the greatest threat, a human terrorist who infects the meat supply.

The best solution is to know exactly where your beef is from. Buy locally whenever possible. Don't trust a system so flawed that it can be so easily hijacked by a microscopic terrorist.

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