Yesterday on NPR I caught a news story about a restaurant chain called Chipotle. They are an upscale fast food restaurant that pretends to be the same type of purveyor as Whole Foods, i.e. they market the idea of using farm fresh ingredients without actually using farm fresh ingredients. Those who think about their health when eating fast food — an oxymoron if ever there was one — choose these types of outfits because it allows them to indulge their hunger without actually correcting their previous ignorance regarding the source of their next next meal. It appears that Chipotle accidentally poisoned its customers in the Northwest with E. Coli contaminated beef.
Not their fault, actually since Chipotle did exactly what they were told to by purchasing their products from “well known and trusted” suppliers. In addition to that, they were secure in the knowledge that the purchases of meats they made were all USDA inspected. Whew! Glad the pros are on the job, doing what they are paid to do, insuring our food supply is safe.
It seems, however, that Chipotle didn’t actually have to poison their customers. The day before they did the USDA had issued a recall on close to 80 tons of ground beef that came from — curiously — a USDA facility in Omaha, Nebraska.
As of now the two events are in no way connected except that they are — in both cases the meat was inspected by the USDA, the very organization whose sole mission is to inspect for things like this. It’s easy to miss 80 tons of contaminated meat, probably came off the line when the inspector was taking a bathroom break.
Keeping meat safe to eat isn’t rocket science. It must be kept clean, it must be used while fresh or promptly frozen or cured, it must be cooked to the proper temperature and eaten soon thereafter. When was the last time you heard of a hunter getting E.Coli? Hundreds of thousand of tons of wild harvested meat is consumed daily coming from less than laboratory condition environments and yet no one gets sick and dies from it. A salad at McDonalds? Bring your barf bag.
For those of you who haven’t got a grasp of how USDA inspections go, or the kinds of plants that can produce 80 tons of ground beef without anyone noticing that it’s got E.Coli in it, it might seem confusing. To someone who is forced to deal with these folks if I want to sell a pound of ground beef to my neighbor, it goes like this — You find a USDA plant that will accept a single animal, usually one that the farmer has known since birth, fed and cared for daily and book that animal for a slaughter date. Most USDA plants will not accept single animals so you have to truck it long distances to one that you think will treat your animal in a humane and responsible fashion, then trust that you will get your grass fed, healthy animal back packaged according to your directions. For this to happen you have to have a relationship with the slaughterhouse, something that takes years to develop. I have been fortunate to find one, a small family run operation about 40 miles away. They are small so the USDA only inspects on certain days of the week and treats them like a red headed step child. I know because I am friendly with the owner and he tells me stories. He is serious and professional and he treats my animals well and I trust him. We never have a problem with the quality of their work or the way they treat our livestock from arrival to pick-up. He stays abreast of his required studies, files HACCP plans, attends Serve Safe Certification classes and maintains good records. While I have never asked, based on my experience I would say that he probably doesn’t turn out 80 tons of meat annually, never mind in a one or two day stretch like that plant that just poisoned all those people. Recently he was told that unless he dramatically increases production and expands his operation, USDA will no longer be able to provide services, thereby putting him and his family and all of their employees and all of their customers effectively out of business. No more high quality, grass fed meats available on the local level, at least around my neck of the woods. As far as I know there hasn’t been a single food borne illness spread by any small producer anywhere in the US in the past decade unless Google has deliberately hidden those search results. The big producers however? They poison people all the time.
And the more involved the USDA gets, the more frequent these outbreaks become.
Funny how just last week we read about the World Health Organization equating the consumption of bacon with smoking cigarettes and breathing asbestos fibers in terms of cancer causes. They would have been better off warning people to avoid USDA labeled products.
To be fair I can’t see how anyone can expect a human inspector to manage quality control of 80 tons of meat per year, never mind per day. It isn’t possible. No system of checks and balances will ever be able to keep an eye on that kind of industrialized food production while also maintaining the safety of the health of the end users. There’s really only one way to insure your best possible outcome and it isn’t the Government or the mega corps with their hair nets and lab coats, it’s local producers that you know and respect. It’s learning to raise your own food and process your own meals with your own hands.