Contamination plagues meat industry

Unhealthy, bacteria-laden meat has been implicated in so many deaths and illnesses, it should be on the FBI’s Most Wanted List.Just last month, Minneapolis-based GFI American Inc. recalled 717,000 pounds of frozen ground-beef products nationwide because of possible E. coli contamination. GFI’s recall comes right on the heels of ConAgra Beef Co.’s massive ground-beef recall, the second largest in U.S. history, just one month earlier.On June 30, ConAgra recalled 354,200 pounds of ground-beef products nationwide. By July 19, the recall had expanded to 19 million pounds of ground beef. The Food Safety and Inspection Service classified it as a “Class 1 Recall,” meaning that it was “a health hazard situation where there is reasonable probability that the use of the product will cause serious, adverse health consequences or death.” Sure enough, at least one person died and numerous others became violently ill.There’s clearly a problem with the meat supply, and it’s more than the government’s guidelines for the “safe handling” of beef which read like instructions for disposing of toxic waste – can solve.Since the well-known Jack in the Box restaurant outbreak that sickened more than 700 people and killed four in Washington, California, Nevada and Utah in 1993, E. coli has become a household word and the number of meat recalls has skyrocketed. In December 2000, for example, the American Foods Group Inc. recalled 1.1 million pounds of ground beef due to possible E. coli contamination. Then, in August 2001, the same company recalled more than 530,000 pounds of ground beef in 17 states. But American Food Groups is hardly the only company embarrassed by repeated recalls. IBP Inc., the nation’s largest beef processor, recalled 320,000 pounds of ground beef in April 2001. Later, in August, IBP recalled 500,000 more pounds of ground beef throughout 36 states. In most cases, the meat has already been purchased and eaten by the time the recall is announced. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there are approximately 73,000 cases of E. coli infections and 61 deaths each year in the United States. Society’s desire for meat and dairy products means that millions of cows must be intensively raised on factory farms. Under such crowded conditions, it is easy for E. coli bacteria to spread from cow to cow. In fact, most of the 10 billion cows, pigs and birds butchered every year in this country are covered with E. coli bacteria (though not necessarily the 0157 variety), an indicator of fecal contamination. Plant-based foods, on the other hand, do not normally harbor E. coli or other fecal bacteria. (When fruits or vegetables, such as strawberries, tomatoes or romaine lettuce, do contain E. coli, it is from cow and chicken manure that is used as fertilizer or because of cross-contamination.) The best way to avoid E. coli is to stop eating meat and start eating healthier grains, vegetables, fruits and legumes. As more and more people adopt a vegetarian diet, our need for cows and other farmed animals will diminish, therefore lessening the threat of E. coli contamination – and saving human and animal lives.