If you’re a regular meat consumer, you may have heard that ground beef from an Arizona processor has been recalled after affecting consumers with salmonella in over 25 states. In October, JBS Tolleson ordered a recall on about 3,500 tons of ground beef, and upped that number with an additional 2,500 tons recalled in a move aimed at guaranteeing cautious consideration of the consumer.
Our mission matters
It’s time like these that remind us why we set out on our original mission: to transparently link meat consumers to the sources of their animal protein. Along the way, we knew we’d find out a few of the shortcuts made by corporate producers to place quantity over quality. Salmonella outbreaks like this lend a perfect lens for examining the practical advantages of buying meat from smaller producers.
How can one ground beef source spread bacteria to over 25 states? Here’s a brief explanation of the risks associated with the otherwise highly utilitarian process of turning unwanted beef trimmings into ground beef.
A primer on ground beef
The grinding process makes something of nothing. As a butcher harvests the many prized whole muscle portions of the animal (which can be cooked whole or broken down into steaks and roasts), he or she generates a large portion of trimmings, the un-pretty bits which, while useful in terms of nutritional content, aren’t suitable for sale on their own. To eliminate waste, the trimmings are then pooled together and ground down into the very versatile and delicious ground beef product.
Prior to mobile refrigeration, restaurants and butcher shops were forced to purchase beef by the side: in other words, they had to buy an entire half-cow (which had to be slaughtered relatively close to the final destination), and make use of as much weight as possible to cushion the bottom line. Grinding allowed every bit of the half-cow to go to market.
With the birth of reliable mobile refrigeration, beef from many ranches could be processed at a central processing plant and sold by the steak or muscle to customers across large geographical distances. But what happens when the same utilitarian concept – take the unusable parts of a cow and make them usable – is applied to trimmings from several cows? What if, as became a reality in the post-war years, several hundred cattle were contributing to the same pool of ground beef?
How centralized is too centralized?
As explained by Patrick Boyle, CEO of the American Meat Institute, as part an expansive PBS study of the modern meat industry, the end of World War II brought about the rise of chain grocery stores as a streamlined replacement to family-owned butchers. At the same time, refined refrigeration technology allowed one central processing plant to break down thousands of cattle.
On the economic surface, everybody wins. Processors can expand margins by centralizing the slaughter market, restaurants don't have to buy anything they don't need, and the reduced cost makes its way to the consumer, allowing Americans to spend less of their income on food than any other country. But the PBS piece focuses on the issue of just how many cattle rub up against each other in these plants. Dr. Robert Tauxe of the CDC, when asked how many cows might contribute to a single burger, says he "[suspects] there are hundreds or even thousands of animals that have contributed to a single hamburger."
As one burger could potentially contain meat from so many animals, the chances that a sick animal contributes to hundreds or thousands of burgers at any given time makes for a nightmare of disease prevention. Dr. Tauxe explains in the age prior to large processing plants, a food poisoning incident was unlikely to reach beyond the attendees of a church gathering or wedding; everyone at the party, but no one else, got sick.
But when the bacteria-ridden meat of one animal is thrown into a vat which produces thousands of pounds of ground beef to be sent all around the country, sickness is no longer a local issue. What could have been a single cow’s issue is now a national issue.
When the national beef market is contaminated, trust small, local processors to get the job done with care.