business news in context, analysis with attitude

MNB reported yesterday on an extraordinary 4,800-word page one story in the New York Times that offered a scathing look at the nation’s ground beef production processes and the seeming inability to rid the nation’s ground beef supply of the E. coli strain that sickens tens of thousands of people each year.

One MNB user responded:

I read the New York Times article yesterday, although it was difficult to get through past the waves of nausea. I remember as a child, I used to sneak scraps of raw ground beef, which I thought was yummy with salt. I stopped that practice years ago, after I read a book called Diet For A New America, which chronicled, a bit melodramatically, the practices of the beef, pork and poultry industries from an environmental, safety, and moral standpoint. In fact, although I didn't have any trouble with being at the top of the food chain in general (and still don't) I didn't eat any meat for about two years after reading it - I was THAT grossed out and offended by the cruelty in the industry.

Alas, I got over it, and went back to eating meat. A few years ago I read the follow-up to Diet For a New America, Food Revolution, and was immediately back on the "ick" train, but chose to not forego meat entirely, going instead down the path of purchasing meat from small local farmers.

But that passed too. I went back to buying meat at the grocery store, even though every time I did, I thought about how disgusting it really all is. Ground beef is the ultimate in gross, combining poor cattle raising practices with all of the disgusting bits from the slaughterhouses, but any large processor beef, pork or poultry really is fairly revolting.

Ultimately, I bear responsibility for what I purchase for my family to eat, but we live in a society that still trusts its government to have effective minimum standards for safety in place. It's a trust that is clearly misplaced, as you have shown over and over again on your site.

I don't know what the solution is, but I don't think it's irradiation, at least not as a one stop shopping solution. Sure, it would kill all of the bacteria, but with what unintended consequences? Would slaughterhouses and processing centers get even more disgusting, tossing aside any pretense of sanitary procedures, if everyone knew that the meat was going to get zapped before it went to the consumer? And what else does the irradiation do to the meat? Has that been adequately examined by anyone outside of the industry or the government agencies that obviously are in their back pocket?

All I know is that I'm still a little queasy.

Another MNB user wrote:

It is absolutely inexcusable for our government to overlook the safety of its citizens so that corporations can rest assured they'll receive their profits at the end of the year. I've traveled all over Central and South America - a part of the world mostly comprised of "third world countries" - and trust me on this, those countries (you know, the ones most Americans consider barbaric and underdeveloped) don't have the scale of food safety issues we have in the United States. The beef in Argentina is some of the best in the world with their grass fed, grass finished tradition of raising cattle on the lush pampas. Their products are mostly local and the farms are supported by the communities they feed. Michael Pollan is right - corporate agriculture is a health risk to all of us.

From another MNB user:

Without further delay Congress needs to get USDA out of the food inspection business and create a single agency for all food.


I commented yesterday that I cannot understand why irradiation has not been more embraced as a solution to E. coli contamination, which led one MNB user Elizabeth Archerd to write:

We should have a serious talk about food irradiation as a proposed solution to contamination problems. Irradiation has been a technology in search of a purpose ever since the "Friendly Atom" days, when the government tried to figure out uses for radioactive waste. They tried to sell it to grocers in the 80s as a way to extend shelf life. Didn't fly. Who wants to be known as the store that sells old food that was nuked to look forever young?

Irradiating meat sounds like a great idea, but human beings are still running the show.

Think about how this plays out. Slaughterhouses don't want to sell their meat to companies that will test the product for contamination, and they manage to hold on to this position while people are dying from a deadly bacteria contracted from their product. Can we honestly expect them to get more careful and honest about their products if they know that at the end of the grinding line the product will be exposed to bacteria-killing rays? Animal feces are still what they are, even after exposure to gamma rays. Do we really want to feed our children nuked filth?

Irradiated food is subject to recontamination at any point. But humans being humans, you can bet that people will think that there is some magical aura around the products that makes it resistant to bacteria and just not be as careful as they need to be. The bacteria killed by the gamma rays are not just the ones that make us sick, but the ones that let us know that meat is starting to go bad by giving off an unpleasant odor. (Care to feed your children old, nuked filth?)

There are plenty of ways to assure a cleaner meat supply that don't involve an expensive techno-fix that only dazzles the eye but does not address the underlying problems.

All fair points.

And another MNB user wrote:

This is why my sisters and I have, for the last 18 years, purchased free-range, grass fed (no grain) cows (no antibiotics or artificial hormones given), butchered, wrapped and delivered by our rancher. We know who raised, butchered, wrapped and delivered the cow. Plus it has the taste of real beef.

Gee, where I do get myself a rancher? That sounds like a pretty good deal…

In all seriousness, the one thing that the food industry – and retailers in particular – must not do in this case is ignore this story, downplay it, or hope that it will simply go away. It won’t. Consumer confidence in the US food supply is slowly eroding, and it seems likely to me that something is going to happen that will accelerate the process.

This is job one. It cannot and should not be ignored.

Had a story yesterday about an NPR interview in which Sallie James, an agricultural trade policy analyst with the Cato Institute, said that the best way to get poor people to eat a more nutritious diet is to put Walmart in charge. "You allow Walmart to come into urban areas and provide cheaper fresh produce to people," James said. "The reality is they have a very good distribution network. They can get fresh produce into rural and exurban areas very well … I'm sure they'd love to provide produce to poor people, but often activists prevent that from happening."

I described that this was an “interesting notion,” but even that was too much for one MNB user:

Will your love of Wal-Mart never end? Allow any chain to service poor neighborhoods, and they will have the same chance at fresher produce, and a healthier diet. Doesn’t mean they will take advantage of the opportunity. Maybe we need to narrow what they can buy with food stamps (EBT card) allow only healthy foods to be purchased, do not allow sodas, candy, chips, this list could go on for a long time.

It might be good for you to spend some time behind a register instead of a keyboard, maybe a little less time with executives, more with the rank and file. A lot of the choices they make are out ignorance or time constraints.

I grew up in a large family, watched my mother stretch her food dollar extremely far. I marvel what is purchased on EBT today when they can get a whole lot more if they shopped smart, and going to Wal-Mart isn’t always the smartest way. Many other chains across the country work very hard to stay competitive with whoever is their competition.

Another MNB user wrote:

I also heard this interview on NPR Saturday and was surprised to hear an economist from the Cato Institute espouse Wal-Mart as the solution to such a complex problem.

Has she not heard of ALDI or Winco, who actually beat Wal-Mart's pricing on many items? There are also many regional grocery chains across the country that offer the same or better prices as Wal-Mart on similar quality produce.

While I do not agree with the majority of the Wal-Mart bashing that the grocery industry seems to enjoy, I find it very hard to believe that Wal-Mart is the solution for better diets for low-income people.

Still another MNB user chimed in:

The idea of putting Wal Marts in Urban communities would be great, until the Union comes along and forces the store to join the union and then the prices go up to offset the cost of having a union and then we are back to square one. Sorry to be so cynical.....I'm from Chicago, and the city did a huge disservice to the people of Chicago by not allowing a Wal Mart there. It would have created jobs, and given people access to fresh produce and healthier cheaper options.
KC's View: