Young and Hungry

Readers Respond to Ground-Beef Gate

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The New York Times' investigation of the commercial beef industry has consumed much of Y&H's attention this week. First, I solicited a couple of burger men to give their opinions on the differences between commercial ground beef and gourmet ground beef. Then, I asked those with a less-vested interest in the subject— readers, in other words — for their thoughts.

Y'all had some good thoughts, like Jamie's:

Ug, here we go again, a bunch of idiots who never cared where their food came from are now shocked by this article and will swear off burgers for about a month or so until all the media news dies down. Nevermind that they won't look into chicken or pork, which is raised in equally deplorable ways. Then they'll forget about it. I give it two months until the same people are eating at McDonalds/KFC/Burger King/Taco Bell again.

Stories like these aren't shocking to anyone that's read Michael Pollan's Omnivoire's Dilemna or has seen the movie Food, Inc.

Outbreaks of e.coli will continue until there is a serious movement by the people to switch to organic foods. The USDA, which has no power to stop the industrial food chain from poisoning America, is not a solution. The real solution is for everyone to educate themselves on exactly where their food came from and to switch to organic produce and pasture raised meats, exclusively. This is the only way to change this cycle of poison.

In fact, if everyone started doing just that, we also wouldn't need a healthcare reform, because we wouldn't have such a high rate of cancer and diseases. What we put in our bodies fuels our bodies, which is why my husband and I have been eating organic for two years now and switched to pastured meat exclusively this past winter...and we are never going back.

Joel had even more to say on the matter:

Simply put, I don't trust the Department of Agriculture inspection regime to keep me safe. So I take up the slack by reducing my meat intake to sources I trust, because I think that's part of being a responsible consumer.

The regulatory regime is inadequate, and a cursory look at its history makes that plain. The present set of safeguards is largely unchanged since the Progressive Era, when outrage sparked by Upton Sinclair's "The Jungle" gave us federal regulation of the food supply. But there haven't been any major revisions to the regime since then. As a result, USDA inspections have evolved to benefit the corporation, not the consumer, and for some time they have failed to provide the basic safeguards that make me trust the commercial meat supply.

But I'll still eat meat, though less frequently than I might like. Partly, that's a health issue related to the high fat content of red meat. But partly that's because the red meat I trust is expensive: I can't find it at my local supermarket or the corner Five Guys.

I basically trust high-profile restaurants, such as Ray's The Classics or The Capital Grille (or Peter Luger's), which have reputations to protect and a significant interest in ensuring that the meat they serve is of the highest quality. For the high-end outfits, serving tainted beef is virtually unthinkable: their own inspection process is rigorous. I haven't made the trip to Ray's Hell Burger...

But to my mind, with even the good fast-food outlets, such as Five Guys or In-N-Out, the sheer size of the operation makes me uncomfortable trusting my health and welfare to their supervisors. And McDonald's might as well not exist for me. It's been years since I had one of their burgers, though I admit a weakness for their french fries.

When I want to make patties at home, I don't trust the local supermarket (or even Whole Paycheck). Even a high-end operation like Trader Joe's or Whole Foods relies essentially on the USDA inspection process when purchasing meat from a wholesaler. So for cuts of meat or ground beef, I see two options:

One is the kosher or halal butcher. The dietary restrictions in Jewish and Muslim law mitigate against some of the more horrifying practices that USDA winks at. But it's far from perfect: the size of the market for the product introduces incentives to cut corners.

The other options is to trust a few local farms, such as Hedgeapple Farm in Buckeystown, MD, because of their high degree of transparency. With a local operation, I can visit the farm, the slaughterhouse, the packaging facility, knowing that even their ground beef comes from a limited number of herds, and that like a high-end restaurant, they live and die by their reputation.

Does that mean I have to drive out to Frederick for filets, sirloins, ribeyes, and ground beef? Yes. Do I think it's worth it? Absolutely.

This isn't the forum to sound off on my view of the effectiveness of federal regulatory regimes, but the bottom line is that as consumers, we have an obligation to make educated choices about how we allocate our purchasing power. If you're into social justice, it's an extension of your voting power to empower organizations that you think do good in the world. If you're a free marketeer, it's the acquisition of more perfect information that improves consumer choice and makes the market more efficient.

Either way, trusting the packaged beef at the supermarket is a gamble.

Danielle decided to get personal in her response:

In response to your question about if I've sworn off burgers after reading the article in Sunday's New York Times, this article only confirms why I swore off all meat almost eight years ago, a few months after reading Fast Food Nation. I hope Mark Bucher isn't so naive to think that this is just cheap meat at fast food restaurants (the unfortunate woman's burger was from a grocery store, if I recall correctly) that's tainted and that "gourmet" meat is safe. Unless these upscale burger joints are buying big chunks of cows' flesh and doing the grinding themselves, how can they know what's in that patty?

Which gets to a point that has been working my nerves for some time: You are even worse than the Post when it comes to mentioning vegetarian options in your column. Even people who eat meat want a vegetarian meal once in a while. Or if a vegetarian (or vegan) is with a group of meat-eaters, it's nice to know if there are options.

I hope more people consider eating less meat or giving it up, as this is not just in a few slaughterhouses, but in ALL slaughterhouses, for all types of meat, not just hamburgers. And as Rory Friedman declared in Skinny Bitch, government agencies don't give a shit about your health.

Dan Simons, with Founding Farmers, and Agraria Farmers & Fishers, wanted us to know that his operations are scrap-free:

Thank you for highlighting the NYT article, and for giving a forum for Mark Bucher’s response. I thought the article was excellent; it seemed to find the right balance between details, facts, and interest and I’m hopeful a lot of people will really absorb the information. I also enjoyed Mark Bucher’s perspective, because it shows that when restaurateurs are true professionals, they aren’t scared to talk to the media and explain what they do and how they do it. We feel the same way about the two restaurants we run in DC, Founding Farmers, and Agraria Farmers & Fishers. I’ll spare you all the details, but similar to Mark Bucher, we know the true source of our beef, and we grind it ourselves in-house daily, so we have complete control over the process. No scraps, nor ammonia, to be found in our operation!

I do think the public should be hugely concerned with the food supply from “restaurants” that treat food like a Wal-Mart plastic product, and just want the cheapest, fastest food. That might be OK for plastics and matchbox cars, but with food, it is really not such a great idea...and I suppose, in order to not offend matchbox cars, that even for manufacturing, “fastest and cheapest” ain’t actually producing very good results. If health is partly a function of what we eat, and if the quality of what we eat matters, then I think our restaurants’ stance on True Food & Drink is a huge point of difference vs. much of the competition for dining dollar.

And finally, Jenny just thought the whole situation was old news:

There's nothing new about what's in the Times article except the solid trail of evidence connected to a particularly moving human interest story published in a major paper.

We've been receiving the CSPI's Nutrition Action newsletter for years, and as a result, when Giant Foods stopped selling "ground chuck," we started buying chuck steak and grinding it with our KitchenAid. That way we can have rare hamburgers without worry.

It's not just E Coli we are worried about. It's just gross what's allowed in "ground beef."

Comments

  1. #1

    Get a grip. How many people die from this each year? Now...how many die from, for example, driving accidents? (About 43,000 in 2008.) Think about it. It's one thing to get up in arms about this article, but 10% of you are going to go on texting while on the road, for example... ;-)

    The story illustrates a repulsive failure of the government to protect our food supply--that's not news. Do the best you can to make sensible choices (we eat organic ground bison), and keep the death statistics in context. Many more Americans will croak from the sheer unhealthiness of their diets--obesity, diabetes, heart conditions--than from one particular bug inside some of it.

  2. #2

    Grind your own.

  3. #3

    Please don't forget that the USDA will tell you that "naturally" or "organically" raised beef isn't any safer or more nutritious than any other type of beef. I do commend you for supporting local beef producers, but please remember that the main goal of the cattle industry is to produce a safe and nutritious food supply.

    Beef producers have invested over $27 million to beef safety research. That is their own money, taken at the time of sale of any animal; therefore, they have a vested intrest. They also serve their own product to their own families, proving their belief in the safeguards in place.

    We can all agree that beef tastes great and has some wonerful nutritious aspects, like being a readily available source of zinc, iron and protein. We are in control of how we protect ourselves from foodborne illnesses- cook ALL beef to a minimum of 160 degrees and cook all the pink out of ground beef. Don't cross contaminate and wash your hands.

  4. #4

    Please don't forget that the USDA will tell you that "naturally" or "organically" raised beef isn't any safer or more nutritious than any other type of beef. I do commend you for supporting local beef producers, but please remember that the main goal of the cattle industry is to produce a safe and nutritious food supply.

    Beef producers have invested over $27 million to beef safety research. That is their own money, taken at the time of sale of any animal; therefore, they have a vested interest. They also serve their own product to their own families, proving their belief in the safeguards in place.

    We can all agree that beef tastes great and has some wonderful nutritious aspects, like being a readily available source of zinc, iron and protein. We are in control of how we protect ourselves from foodborne illnesses- cook ALL beef to a minimum of 160 degrees and cook all the pink out of ground beef. Don't cross contaminate and wash your hands.

  5. #5

    Not only are chicken, turkey, and beef major sources of foodborne illnesses; the production of these foods is largely responsible for other cases of food poisoning. Plant-based foods do not naturally harbor E. coli or salmonella bacteria. The bacteria live in the intestinal tracts and feces of warm-blooded animals. When animal manure is used to fertilize crops or leaks into waterways, fruits and vegetables can become cross-contaminated. If more people adopt a vegetarian diet, fewer animals will be bred for food, lessening the threat of other outbreaks.

  6. #6

    A major cause of E.coli is that the cattle are on a grain (corn) based diet. Feedlot grain makes the animals more acidic, which in turn makes the E. coli more acid-resistant so that the acids in our stomachs can't combat the E.coli bacteria. If you want to have safer meat, you need to eat grassfed meat. I write a blog about this (www.kolfoods.blogspot.com) and started a kosher, grass-fed meat business (www.kolfoods.com).

    Here is a study by Cornell University about this very issue:

    Russell, J. B., F. Diez-Gonzalez, and G. N. Jarvis. "Potential Effect of Cattle Diets on the Transmission of Pathogenic Escherichia Coli to Humans" Microbes Infect 2, no. 1 (2000): 45-53.

  7. #7

    There is no accountability greater than buying directly from the producer. No amount of regulation can equal that. Want food safety, buy from someone who has already sampled the beef from the same animal you are buying it from? Want quality, buy from a knowledgeable producer who is selecting for tenderness and marbling and has tested the very beef you are buying.

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