Fecal bacterial contamination of our foods is an increasingly prevalent problem and one that has received a significant amount ofpublicity—to wit, numerous disturbing reports on E. Coli 0157:H7 contamination of hamburger meat resulting in recalls. The astonishing and frightening lead articles on the front page of the October and December 2009 New York Times by investigative reporter Michael Moss cannot help but make us question whether we ever really want to eat another hamburger again. He won the Pulitzer Prize for his article entitled, “The Burger That Shattered Her Life,” describing the horrible E. Coli illness linked to the consumption of Cargill ground beef by a young woman.
Fecal bacterial contamination of livestock is viewed by the government and meat suppliers as acceptable and a given at certain levels. However, even a small amount of contamination—a collateral effect of what animals are fed and how they are raised—can make us very ill, or in some instances, even cause death. If we buy ground beef off the shelves of a supermarket, what we actually get is an amalgam of various grades of meat from different parts of cows and different slaughterhouses, both nationally and internationally. One hamburger may represent a composite of up to 1000 cows! The more cows and the more slaughterhouses involved in the ground beef, the greater the risk of fecal contamination. There exists strong potential for bacterial E. Coli contamination during every single step of beef processing. And so it would seem that the only way for us to get a hamburger that originates from one cow and dramatically reduce our potential for E. Coli exposure is by purchasing a cut of beef and having our butcher grind it up for us—I’m told brisket makes for an amazing burger.
A company called Beef Products, Inc., came up with the “clever” concept of using the lowliest waste products of the beef carcass—fatty slaughterhouse trimmings with no functional value, typically used for pet food and cooking oil—as a means of keeping the cost of hamburger meat as low as possible. This company conceived the novel idea of treating the fatty trimmings with ammonia to kill the bacterial contaminants, particularly E. Coli and Salmonella, prevalent because of the low grade and quality of beef remnants used. The ammonia works no differently than it does for household cleaning, the alkalinity of the ammonia causing bacterial death. Unfortunately, the ammonia has not proven to be a failsafe measure of sterilization, and there have been numerous instances of bacterial-contaminated beef; plus, who wants to be consuming ammonia, a product that truly belongs on our bathroom floors! Beef Products’ meats are widely used in fast food restaurants, including McDonalds and Burger King, as well as in the ground beef sold in supermarkets and used in the federal school lunch program. School lunch officials allow hamburgers served in schools to contain 15% of the product, which serves to bring the price down. Some customers have complained about the ammonia-like taste and the pungent odor of their beef. Ammonia is not listed as an ingredient on the label, but is referred to by the moniker “processing agent.” A former USDA microbiologist, G. Zirnstein, commented that the beef product is a “pink slime that I do not consider to be ground beef, and I consider allowing it in ground beef to be a form of fraudulent labeling.”
E. Coli 0157:H7—a type of bacteria that is responsible for hemorrhagic colitis and a myriad of other health problems, even including death—is often contracted by the consumption of contaminated beef, although it can also occur by eating spinach and apple juice contaminated from the fecal run-off from farms that raise cattle. E. Coli 0157:H7 is a product of two factors—the corn that the Industrial Food Complex feeds cattle and the feedlot where the cattle are raised. Cows are hard-wired to eat grass, but since corn is cheap, convenient and every kernel contains a big dollop of starch (corn has been bred to contain more carbohydrates and less protein), it will make for bigger and fatter cattle. We all know how too many “carbs” make us humans fat, and the same is true for other mammals. These literally obese cattle will get to slaughter faster and yield beef that is well-marbled with saturated fat that commands a higher ranking on the USDA beef hierarchy and translates into more dollars and profits for the industry. The beef from grass-fed cattle is different than that from corn-fed cattle, essentially being less marbled with saturated fats, healthier, and less likely to be contaminated with E. Coli and other such bacteria.
Since the digestive system of ruminants like cattle did not evolve for the digestion of large quantities of corn, their consumption of corn—as opposed to grass, the staple of a ruminant mammal’s diet—changes the bacterial content of the cow’s stomach, allowing for the emergence of E. Coli. Under circumstances of a grass diet, stomach acidity results in the death of most of the bacteria within a cow’s stomach. Cattle raised on grass on real ranches via traditional pasture farming lead a much different life from cattle raised on feedlots, which are the large industrial factories where most cattle are raised in over-crowded and contaminated environments. These animal factories are known as CAFOs (Confined Animal Feeding Operations). It is to some extent similar to the difference between living leisurely in an affluent suburb on a large piece of land, versus a crowded, infested, and dangerous inner city environment. Cattle raised in feedlots stand in very filthy and over-populated conditions, ankle-deep in manure, with their hides caked with excrement, overfed with starch-rich corn and further fattened by their limited availability to move around. The use of antibiotics in the feed is, in fact, an attempt to neutralize some of this fecal contamination.
The problem occurs in the slaughterhouse where the more manure on the animal, the greater the risk of fecal contamination upon processing the animal. Cattle often arrive with smears of feedlot feces on their hides and when the knife is brought to the flesh, the meat can get exposed to bacterial contaminants that are present in the cow feces. Ground beef, in particular, lends itself to contamination because its constituent parts are often the lower quality parts of the cow that are more likely to have fecal contact. There is additional risk of E. Coli contamination at the gutting station, where the intestinal tract—where E. coli resides—is separated from the rest of the animal.
So what to do? There are a number of possible solutions. We can cook our hamburgers so that they are so well done—ala hockey pucks—that bacteria don’t have a fighting chance. We can forego meat and become vegetarians or vegans. We could select certified organically–raised beef that has far less chance of contamination. In the ideal world, certified organic beef is derived from a ranch that maintains a record of breeding history and veterinary care rendered to its cattle. The cattle do not receive hormones or antibiotics, are fed organic grains and grasses, have unrestricted outdoor access, and are treated in a humane fashion. Alternatively, we can purchase meats from local farmers or at farmers markets. Or we can go to a reliable butcher and pick out a nice cut of meat and have him grind it in front of us. Or we can try the DIY (Do It Yourself) approach and raise a few head of cattle in our backyards (try getting a town or city permit for this one!).
Nullius in verba (take nobody’s word for it): I hate to throw a fly in the ointment, but is organic really organic, or is it mere semantics? Are organic livestock pasture-based? Prior to June 2010, at which time more stringent rules went into effect, the requirement for organic dairy producers was the following: organically-raised livestock had to have access to pasture. Theoretically, this might mean that a farmer permitted his cattle pasture time for 10 minutes each day—a mere romp in the field allowing for the label “organic.” This was a loophole allowing some dairies to feed their animals almost exclusively a diet of grain feeds. The new regulations state that cows must now graze on pasture for a major portion of the grazingseason—a minimum of 120 days mandated by law—and must get at least 30% of their food from pasture during the grazing period.These new rules also apply to beef cattle, with the exception that the 30% requirement is suspended during the 4-month period when the animals are fattened prior to slaughter. Ahhh . . . yet another disturbing loophole in the quest for truly grass-fed cows!
In New York City there are now several Shake Shack restaurants where, in contradistinction to your typical fast food restaurant, you can get what seems to be as close to a healthy burger as you possibly can. Right off their menu is the following: whole-muscle, no-trimmings, fresh-ground, antibiotic-and-hormone-free, source-verified-to-ranch-of-birth, choice-or-higher-grade Black Angus beef. Sounds like a great option when that carnivorous craving strikes!
And now a little aside on American-grown poultry exported to Russia and Europe, according to a New York Times report by Michael Schwirtz in January 2010. Russia’s view is that American poultry is fatty, tasteless and raised on chemicals. From Russia’s perspective, the critical issue is that American companies use chlorine to disinfect the poultry after slaughter. Russian health officials feel that the chlorine method is unsafe and outlawed it in 2008, as had the European Union previously. The Russian government imposed a ban on the importation of American chicken, purportedly because US companies have been remiss in adhering to Russia’s new food safety regulations. Prime Minister Putin stated that the USA was not ready to observe Russian poultry standards. Yikes, so we use chlorine to disinfect our chickens, just as we do to decontaminate our pools and our standards are not good enough for Europe and Russia!
Another healthy alternative chosen by many is to buy kosher meats. Kosher foods—prepared in accordance with Jewish dietary laws and requiring certification—have really come into their own in this era of food fears engendered by numerous reports of food contamination, food allergies, and the dubious provenance of many ingredients. Forty percent of the food items sold at supermarkets now bear the kosher imprint and only fifteen percent of those who buy kosher do so for religious reasons. The vast majority of those who buy kosher, including an increasing number of non-Jewish people, do so because of the perceived high quality, purity of ingredients and healthiness, thought of in a similar vein as local and organic foods. Is kosher food actually any healthier or safer than non-kosher food? The honest answer is that we just don’t know.
This is just a taste of what you will find in Promiscuous Eating: Understanding and Ending Our Self-Destructive Relationship with Food. The website for the book is: www.promiscuouseating.com. It provides information on the book, a trailer, excerpts, ordering instructions, as well as links to a wealth of excellent resources on healthy living. It is also available on Amazon Kindle.