Sunday, October 07, 2007

Undercooked meat does not kill people, E. coli O157:H7 does

Which would you prefer? A clean meat supply, where the meat you eat is generally free of nasty pathogenic bacteria? Or a meat supply that has to be irradiated and cooked in order to make it safe?

Check out the article in Newsweek for a sort of discussion of this issue relating to the E. coli O157:H7 strain found in ground beef recently, and more frequently all the time.

Why is E. coli O157:H7 in ground beef in the first place? The answer to this depends on at what point in the life cycle of the meat processing you want to track the E. coli to. Meat processors would like to say it just comes from a little bit of "contamination" during making ground beef. But the real question to me is, why is there so much E. coli O157:H7 around for it to contaminate the ground beef? Well, I like the explanations of Michael Pollan and Eric Schlosser given in the Newsweek article:

Schlosser says
we have a systemic problem here starting in the feedlots, spreading in the slaughterhouses, and winding up in the ground beef at plants that make frozen patties. Putting Topps out of business isn't going to solve that fundamental problem.”
Pollan says
This particular bug was not a problem before the industrialization of the meat supply,” says Michael Pollan, an investigative journalist and food writer. “It’s an adaptation to the feedlot diet [which is composed of corn, ethanol byproducts and other grain feed]. Animals who get a proper diet and are outside eating grass don’t get much of it. Even if you give the animals fresh hay in the last days of their lives, the E. coli burden drops 80 percent. But it would just screw up the workings of the [industry]. The other way [to reduce risk] is to slow down the lines, if you could butcher with more care.”
A meat industry consultant counters this by saying
When you pack people together in cities, diseases pass between them easier. If you’re living in the plains with five miles between households, you’re less likely to get sick. I think it’s the nature of the world. The reality is if you cook the meat you’ll never have a problem. I eat beef a lot and I may get indigestion from time to time, but I don’t get sick. No one will ever get sick if you fully cook the meat. This isn’t rocket science.
Not the most ringing endorsement in the first place (is indigestion supposed to be a good thing?). But Pollan wraps up my feeling on this:
if there is indeed manure in the meat, however microscopic, you’re still eating cooked manure.
So - yes, getting cheap meat will require us to industrialize the process somewhat. But do we really want the meat to be as cheap as possible? I do not think so. I think quality of the environment, quality of the meat, and reducing the spread of nasty pathogens should also be part of the equation. I am not going to start eating raw meat, but just because you can kill the bacteria in contaminated meat does not mean I want to eat it.

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