Getting sick from bad hamburger meat isn’t an act of God.
Big outfits that sell hamburger – Cargill, Wal-Mart – buy components from several suppliers; the stuff Cargill sells as “American Chef’s Selection Angus Beef Patties” actually consists of “a mix of slaughterhouse trimmings and a mashlike product derived from scraps.”
The suppliers don’t want the stuff they sell tested for E. coli; after all, if their meat turned out to be bad, the government could shut them down. Better not to know. So the suppliers refuse to sell to customers who insist on testing the inputs. (Tyson, for example, refuses to sell to Costco.)
Instead, the product is tested only after it’s blended, which generally means that the source of contamination can’t be determined. Worse, doing it that way increases the risk that bad stuff will get through; the Times story starts with a woman who ate a burger, nearly died, and will never walk again.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture is so captured by agribusiness that it won’t insist on doing things the right way.
Dr. Kenneth Petersen, an assistant administrator with the department’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, said that the department could mandate testing, but that it needed to consider the impact on companies as well as consumers. “I have to look at the entire industry, not just what is best for public health.”
Of course that’s right; the United States of America is so poor, and so short of food, that we need to take some risk of deadly disease to save a couple of pennies on the price of a pound of burger meat. When USDA hinted that it might be developing a backbone, it was quickly reminded of its destiny as an invertebrate:
In August 2008, the U.S.D.A. issued a draft guideline again urging, but not ordering, processors to test ingredients before grinding. “Optimally, every production lot should be sampled and tested before leaving the supplier and again before use at the receiver,” the draft guideline said.
But the department received critical comments on the guideline, which has not been made official. Industry officials said that the cost of testing could unfairly burden small processors and that slaughterhouses already test. In an October 2008 letter to the department, the American Association of Meat Processors said the proposed guideline departed from U.S.D.A.’s strategy of allowing companies to devise their own safety programs, “thus returning to more of the agency’s ‘command and control’ mind-set.”
Oooooooohhhh … scary! “Command-and-control mindset.” You can understand why the Department backed away.
As one who has praised the President for his self-restraint, I say: It’s time to see some righteous anger from Barack Obama. Yes, Tyson owns a couple of Senators whose votes we need on health care. Yes, the Republicans will whine some more about Marxism. But this is, if you’ll pardon the expression, a gut issue. The Agriculture Department could impose ingredient testing tomorrow by refusing the USDA stamp to any burger maker that doesn’t practice it.
If the President insists, loudly and publicly, that USDA act right now to defend the public from tainted food, he’ll have the voters on his side. I can’t think of a better way of showing the public, including the Tea Party attendees, who is actually on their side against the faceless bureaucracies, private and public, that mistreat them.
More important: by getting angry and demanding action, the President will be doing the right thing.