The New York Times reports that the beef industry is upset with the Agriculture Department over its new regulations on deadly food toxins found in ground beef.

Millions of pounds of beef (primarily hamburger) have had to be recalled since 1994, when a strain of Escherichia coli was banned from ground beef. This strain of E. coli is a deadly bacteria whose home base is the lower intestine of warm blooded animals. Due to the way we raise cattle and process meat (don’t ask), the bacteria finds its way into our hamburgers as well as onto fruits and vegetables we buy.

Not all E. coli is dangerous; there are many strains, but E. coli 0157:H7 is deadly and has been the focus of attention by the USDA. Now, to the dismay of the beef industry, SIX more deadly, but rare, strains of E. coli are also to be banned and won’t be going to market – at least not in raw hamburger or similar products.

Dr. Elizabeth Hagen of the U.S. Department of Agriculture was quoted as saying, “We’re doing this to prevent illness and to save lives. This is one of the biggest steps forward in the protection of the beef supply in some time.”

It is certainly a noble objective to want to save lives and prevent sickness, but unfortunately it conflicts with an even more noble objective of corporate America – namely making profits and getting rid of government regulations (bad for business).

Business already has it too good since it is perfectly legal to sell food that is full of toxins as it is. Salmonella infested food can be sold to the public with just a warning to cook the food at a suitably high temperature or to wash it thoroughly. The government doesn’t want to overly stress business interests by making them clean up their processing factories to eliminate salmonella contamination. What more do they want?

Well, for one, they want the new regulations against the six new strains of E. coli to go away. Here is what the American Meat Institute says: “Imposing this new regulatory program on ground beef will cost tens of millions of federal and industry dollars – costs that likely will be borne by taxpayers and consumers. It is neither likely to yield a significant public health benefit nor is it good public policy.”

Well it may cost taxpayers money’ – we have to pay for some things besides war after all, and the industry will certainly try to pass along the cost of cleaning up their processing plants to their customers; but what is the alternative? The Times reports that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates these six additional strains of E. coli sicken 133,000 people yearly and a third of them get sick from contaminated beef.

Nevertheless, the American Meat Institute not only says it is not good public policy to regulate against this contamination, it also concludes the need for regulation is “just not supported by the science.” It is at least reassuring that the industry is aware that there is something out there called “science” that should be taken into account, even if its use by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the U.S. Department of Agriculture is misguided.

Anyway, waste not, want not: the tainted meat can still be sold to the public – it just can’t be sold as fresh meat. E. coli 157 and the six new strains under regulation will be heated to 160 degrees and sold to us in all those nice meat dishes that are labeled pre-cooked and all we have to do is warm and serve. The millions of little dead E. coli cells can then be happily consumed without, we are told, any ill effects. Yum, yum.




Thomas Riggins
Thomas Riggins

Thomas Riggins has a background in philisophy, anthropology and archeology. He writes from New York, NY. Riggins was associate editor of Political Affairs magazine.