The jungle, updated

Aren’t you glad you don’t live in one of those Third World countries where it’s dangerous to eat the food? Oh, wait …

Getting sick from bad hamburger meat isn’t an act of God.

It’s the product of choices by corporations and officials.

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.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact:

19 thoughts on “The jungle, updated”

  1. You really should talk to the libertarians before posting stuff like this, Mark.

    They will carefully explain that firms won't sell tainted meat because it would hurt their reputations, and that would be bad for business. So all this regulation and inspection stuff is utterly unnecessary and wasteful. The market solves all.

  2. Mark, you've fallen into the treasonous grip of unAmerican forces dedicated to sabotaging our immune systems by denying us access to the bugs who keep them fit. Carbon dioxide is good for plants too; without coal and oil burning, there's be no lettuce for that salutary hamburger.

  3. A couple of years ago, a producer wanted to run extra tests (so it could export its meat more easily to Japan iirc); its competitors didn't want anyone testing, so the USDA prevented the tests.

  4. Couldn't this whole problem be solved by mandating irradiation? Although that would likely anger a whole different group of constituencies..

  5. Irradiation? You're think that the presence of cow feces in food should be solved by nuking the food so the cow feces don't make us sick? Call me a commie, but perhaps it's better not to sell cow feces as food in the first place.

  6. I'd just note that the "could unfairly burden small processors" is not a trivial concern. USDA regs have really hurt the small farm milk and meat industry, basically because they don't distinguish between Tyson and Bev Eggleston. If you are Tyson, and a "batch" is a ton, test every batch works well. If you are butchering on a small scale, and a batch is 25-50 pounds, test every batch gets prohibitively expensive.

  7. Well. We happen to own a stand mixer and have the meat grinder that attaches to it.

    We've purchased my last hamburger. From here on out, we buy whatever's reasonably priced (chuck, etc.) and grind our own.

    That does sweet FA for the public health issue, but it solves our issues.

    As Sam notes, small processors do get hosed in this deal. One of our producers of organic free range turkeys (and they grow heritage breeds, not the mutants produced for Butterball etc.) was shut down by USDA earlier this year. One of the problems: they're rural and on a septic system. USDA wants certification that the septic system is okay, which requires digging it up and inspecting it. Cost: $10K or so. That's a problem when your annual production is under 2000 birds.

  8. SamChevre:

    Right in your comment you explain why "could burden the small processor" is a specious explanation. The USDA has never evaluated regulations based on their burden to small producers; if they did, lots of dairy/cheese rules would be enormously different. (As one of our local cheesemakers explained it: "If we were as dirty as the USDA allows, we couldn't make cheese in the first place.") There are plenty of ways to carve out (um) variations and exemptions for smaller producers, but letting the million-pound gorillas completely off the hook is not among them.

  9. As vegetarianism isn't really an attractive option to me, my first thought after reading the NYT piece was to run out, buy a meat grinder, and vow NEVER to eat cheap, mass-produced hamburger ever again.

    Unfortunately, a lot of the problem, as I interpreted it, is not so much a matter of practice (these packing companies DO have safety procedures in place- a lot of them) as it is just the odds of volume: one of the packer/grinders mentioned in the article was cited as processing one million pounds (500 TONS) of meat A DAY – and there's just no way anybody is going to deal with that amount of organic material (like meat) and not run the odds of SOME contamination up to unacceptable levels.

  10. Grinding your own hamburger is an option. An easier one is do NOT buy hamburger packaged by a third party like Tyson or Cargill. Buy the stuff your market grinds there or in its direct suppliers. That's what the earlier articles like this current one suggested.

  11. Head of U.S.D.A. Dr. Kenneth Peterson says, "I have to look at the whole industry not just what is best for public health". Would anybody argue that what is best for public health is best for industry? Seems as though the new American business model of running your company into the ground and deploying your golden parachute is spreading throughout all industries and agencies of government that protect those industries. And here I always thought that the U.S.D.A. was a taxpayer funded agency whose specific purpose was to do what was "best for public health". Time to give the doctor the boot and put like minded industry shills on notice.

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