The E. coli Disaster

By Sandy Powers

Dead rats shoveled into sausage-grinding machines; bribed inspectors; diseased cows slaughtered for beef; filth and guts swept off the floor to be sold as “potted ham”—exposé of the Chicago’s meat-packing industry in Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle,” published in 1906. An outraged public demanded reforms in the meat industry. Congress responded with the creation of the Pure Food and Drug Act and the Meat Inspection Act of 1906, which later became the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Crippled and diseased cows electrically prodded and forklifted into the slaughterhouse to be processed and packaged for sale by Westland/Hallmark Meat Company of California; E. coli contaminated beef used in school lunch programs; federal judge blocked restraining order against Nebraska Beef filed by the USDA that argued serious food-safety violations warranted closure of the plant; close to a million pounds of beef recalled for E. coli contamination—today.

Something is not right. We have two agencies sharing responsibility for food safety, The Food and Drug Administration and the US Department of Agriculture, yet our food is hazardous to our health.

According to an article in the Washington Post, (August 10, 2008), “Nebraska Beef has a contentious history with the USDA. Over the past six years, federal meat inspectors have repeatedly written it up for sanitation violations, and the company has fought back. From September 2002 to February 2003, USDA shut down the plant three times for problems such as feces on carcasses, water dripping off pipes onto meat, paint peeling onto equipment and plugged-up meat wash sinks.”

Nebraska Beef has used such high-risk beef parts as brains and spinal cords in meat processing. Brains and spinal cords are at risk for mad cow disease. The environmental group, Food and Water Watch, complains the Agriculture Department’s Food and Safety and Inspection Service does not deal with Nebraska Meat harsh enough, especially considering the long list of violations by the meat company. According to Human Rights Watch, Nebraska Beef, Ltd. is “a privately-held firm which does not file annual reports with the U.S. Federal Securities and Exchange Commission. Nebraska Beef was founded in 1995 by a group of investors led by company president William Hughes in alliance with Day Lee Inc., the U.S. arm of Nippon Ham of Japan.” Hughes had earlier served as executive vice president of BeefAmerica, which had repeated sanitation violations, including contamination of meat with fecal matter. BeefAmerica has since filed for bankruptcy. Hughes moved to Nebraska Beef.

Even with all the publicity for the serious violations by Nebraska Beef, Coleman Natural Foods, who advertises itself as a pioneer in natural and organic animal raising practices, began sending its beef to Nebraska Beef for processing. Coleman Natural Foods is a supplier of beef to the organic grocery store, Whole Foods Market. Whole Foods Market said it was unaware that Coleman Natural Food, under new ownership, had begun using the infamous Nebraska Beef. Whole Foods became the latest retailer affected by the E. coli contamination traced to Nebraska Beef. What is the point of raising beef organically when it is processed by an unscrupulous slaughterhouse and meat packing company like Nebraska Beef?

The USDA’s advice to consumers at risk? Buy a meat thermometer. “This is another example of a broken federal system that hasn’t put enough resources into stopping the problem,” said Jaydee Hanson, policy director at the Center for Food Safety in Washington.

What really is needed is an outraged public from 1906.

Sandy Powers

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