Thursday, December 13, 2012

The Crappy State of the Beef Industry

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A big thanks to Hofstra Sustainability student A.J. Sonnick for alerting me to this series of articles from the Kansas City Star on a host of issues in the beef industry, particularly e coli contamination.  The collected pieces will now be added to my supplemental reading list for my introductory class.  If you have any interest in food or food safety, I urge you to read the articles.  I know some of you professors out there read this blog and I think you'll find the information informative.  The series is probably the most important investigative journalism on food to come out this year.

The articles focus on the food safety and overall ethics of the beef industry in and around Kansas City.  As many of you know, most of the meat processing in the U.S. is done at a handful of facilities.  Cattle are transported great distances to feedlots near the processing plants where they are fattened and prepared for slaughter.  The idea of your local butcher processing meat from a local animal are long gone.  Now, meat is processed using Fordist assembly line processes using cheap labor in some of the largest buildings in the U.S.  The meat is packed and shipped from these slaughter houses to grocery stores all over the U.S.  Cattle from all over the world are handled in single processing facilities.  As is the case with many corporations, costs are cut at every turn to maximize profits.  There wouldn't be anything wrong with this if the food were truly safe.

But, once in the slaughter houses, there are many routes to contamination by e coli bacteria.  I don't know if you know anyone who has gotten sick from e coli, but it is a very dangerous illness that can lead to death.  The bacteria comes from the digestive system in cows.  Problems with e coli have increased because the cattle are fed a corn-based diet in the feedlots.  The natural diet of cattle is grass, so the corn causes issues with the digestive system which causes e coli to flourish.

I won't take the time to detail all of the issues raised in the articles (please read them), but suffice it to say that it is not a surprise that there have been so many meat recalls in recent years.

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