Header graphic for print
Marler Blog Providing Commentary on Food Poisoning Outbreaks & Litigation

Is it time to give the Meat Industry the treatment we give the Banking and Auto Industries?

E. coli O157:H7 is blamed for 73,000 illnesses and 61 deaths in the United States annually (not all from red meat).

In the last two years, about 44 million pounds of beef has been recalled for E. coli O157:H7 contamination.  Thousands of our friends and neighbors have been sickened and dozens have died.

So it was with interest that I was reading today Mandy Carr Johnson’s, Executive Director of Research, National Cattlemen’s Beef Association and Jeremy Russell’s, Director of Communications ‚Ä®and Government Relations ‚Ä®at the National Meat Association letters to the Editor of the New York Times in response to “More Perils of Ground Meat.”

I was struck by Jeremy’s and Mandy’s clear disconnect between their beliefs and the public’s perception of the beef industry, and what I experience on a daily basis representing the errors in “the safest food supply in the world.”

A few of Jeremy’s points:

– Furthermore, where there was a modest increase [of E. coli O157:H7] detected in raw ground beef components, Beef Products Inc.’s rate of positives is well below industry averages (0.05 percent for 2009 versus 0.99 percent).

Tell that to the hundreds of victims of E. coli O157:H7 outbreaks and recalls I met in 2009.

– Beef Products’ technology, which has been approved by both the Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration — as is thoroughly set forth on its Web site — provides consumers safe products.

So, why again did the National School Lunch Program stop buying the product and the FSIS remove the testing for E. coli O157:H7 exemption?

Mandy’s comments, however, started me thinking a bit more:

– E. coli O157:H7 and other food-borne threats are tough, adaptable foes. But the people who raise and package beef share a commitment to aggressively finding and applying safety solutions that keep them out of our food.

– Beef farmers and ranchers alone have invested more than $28 million since 1993 in beef safety research, and the industry as a whole invests an estimated $350 million a year on safety.

Assuming that those numbers are correct (and I might even assume that they are even higher), why not help the industry that is trying to help itself? Goodness, how many millions, billions, or is it trillions, have we given to bailout the banks and the auto industry?

What if we gave the beef industry tax credits for food safety interventions that actually work? What if we paid to have all downer cattle removed from the food supply? What if we helped fund the field tests for vaccines against E. coli O157:H7 that are underway on both sides of the border – the Bioniche vaccine approved for use in Canada and the Epitopix vaccine has the green light in the U.S? Irradiation? What if we funded research on E. coli O157:H7’s relationship to CAFO’s? Or, more research on grass vs grain fed beef and E. coli O157:H7? Or, pilot projects regionalizing meat production and slaughter? And, dozens of other ideas?

You get my point?  I tell you what, I’ll walk arm in arm with Jeremy and Mandy through the halls of Congress if they had a plan that would work.  Jeremy, Mandy, you know my number.

Perhaps the Chicken, Hog and Lamb folks too?

  • I love almost everything I see on this blog, but this time I think you’ve taken a wrong turn:
    What if we gave the beef industry tax credits for food safety interventions that actually work? What if we paid to have all downer cattle removed from the food supply? What if we helped fund the field tests for vaccines against E. coli O157:H7 that are underway on both sides of the border – the Bioniche vaccine approved for use in Canada and the Epitopix vaccine has the green light in the U.S? Irradiation? What if we funded research on E. coli ? Or, more research on grass vs grain fed beef and E. coli O157:H7? Or, pilot projects regionalizing meat production and slaughter? And, dozens of other ideas?
    Make that “dozens of other ways to hand the meat industry even greater subsidies.”
    Shouldn’t the cost of safe food be borne by the producer and the consumer? Why should the meat industry get yet another stream of taxpayer dollars?
    As a vegetarian, I deeply resent the huge subsidies that already prop up the meat industry. They’re getting quite enough of my tax dollars as it is, thank you very much. If the meat industry doesn’t want to spend the money to solve its food safety problems, I certainly don’t feel like it’s my obligation to chip in.
    The way to solve America’s meat safety problems is to unshackle the USDA’s enforcement powers, so that more meat gets tested and contaminated meat never ships. It’s folly to create yet another meat industry subsidy√¢‚Ǩ‚Äù√Ǭùparticularly when the USA’s national debt exceeds 12 trillion dollars.

  • Anni Q

    On behalf of the omnivores, since consumers are
    going to subsidize food safety anyway one way or another, I’d like to see food safety supervised by government. Industry self-monitoring is making things more dangerous every year. I believe many consumers would see wisdom in this plan.

  • Fred B

    The bank bailout has had one huge (un?)intended consequence: over 100 small, local banks have been driven out of business, and their assets bought up by the bailed-out megacorporations, thus strengthening their stranglehold on the American money system. Now, one has to look harder to find an independent bank that has the consumer’s interests in mind (as opposed to the shareholders’.)
    I don’t see a whole lot of independent meat producers as it is – will a whole lot of new plans and/or “safety” money really help the little guy? Or just drive them to sell out to the big guys because they won’t be included and/or can’t keep up?
    I understand most people don’t know and/or don’t care, as long as they get cheap beef and chicken at WalWorld or MegaMart, but someone has to – I hope? The “cost/risk” needle needs a good push away from “cheaper is better,” and the best place for that to start is with the average consumer going to an independent butcher shop instead of a national or global chain. The question is how to motivate them (us). Apparently the risk of illness and/or death isn’t sufficient.

  • Bix

    Tax credits for food safety interventions: Yes.
    Pay to remove downers: Yes.
    Fund vaccine field tests: Yes.
    Fund irradiation research: Yes.
    Fund research on E. coli’s link to CAFOs: Yes.
    Fund research on grass-fed vs. grain-fed: Yes.
    Fund research on regional meat production: Yes.
    Here’s an idea –> A Cap and Trade system for meat. Cap the rate of E. coli positives. Meat producers that exceed a capped rate will have to buy credits from those with the safest meat.
    I would like to believe that government regulation can effectively improve food safety. I don’t think it will happen without economic incentive. Money is a great incentive.

  • Gail T

    Big mistake!
    First, let us address a premise that has been perpetrated on the American public and needs to be corrected at every point of contact through media, blog or conversation. Factory Farming of Beef is not ‘farming’ in any sense of the word. Farming is the practice of land management and the husbandry of animals, both of which produce healthy land, air, water and beasts. The existence of factory beef farms is the result of covert advertising campaigns that increased the public’s desire for fattening amounts of fast, cheap food. The public is kept anesthetized and complacent, by advertising that depicts white picket fenced farms, believing their food comes from those environments, with “happy cows.” No, factory farming of cattle is a business, the sole purpose of which is to funnel profits into the banks of a select group of monolithic agribusinesses. That said, the bottom line is always more important than the health of the land, air, water or beasts, and results in the deterioration of the health of all these, as well as the public’s health.
    Let us address the statement; “E. coli O157:H7 and other food-borne threats are tough, adaptable foes. But the people who raise and package beef share a commitment to aggressively finding and applying safety solutions that keep them out of our food.” The only true commitment that factory farm businesses have is to their bottom line. Thus, the “aggression” in finding and applying safety solutions is relative only to cost effective production while “minimizing” costly suits due to contamination issues.
    With that reality in mind the following information is revealing “- Beef farmers and ranchers alone have invested more than $28 million since 1993 in beef safety research, and the industry as a whole invests an estimated $350 million a year on safety.” The figure that is missing here is the billions of dollars in profits, realized by these producers and packagers, and the percentage of that amount that these investment figures represent. Looking at that, we could better understand that the aggressive action, as seen by these raisers and packagers of factory-farmed beef, is very different from the family who has suffered the loss of a child from E. coli poisoning.
    Your argument to help the industry “that is trying to help itself” simply feeds the monster. If contamination of food is to be addressed properly, it must be addressed at the most basic of levels. It is painfully clear that subsidies should be paid to real farmers, those who husband the land and beasts, responsibly and in manageable sized operations. They are farmers, who farm with methods that do not pollute the land, air, and water and do not cause animals to endure tortured lives before giving their lives for human benefit.
    There are distinguishing differences between agribusinesses and farmers. Agribusinesses manage business tools and chemicals, while farmers husband the land and animals.
    Though chemical and factory farming has increased yield, it has come at great cost. E. coli poisonings is but one. Billions of dollars are spent at local, municipal, state and national levels to correct, control and cure problems that agribusiness creates. Soil quality is deteriorating, decreasing the nutritional value of our food. Water systems are contaminated with chemicals, many of which are difficult, if not impossible, to filter out before public consumption. The animals are contaminated with chemicals necessary during their inhumane concentrated lives and slaughter. Bountiful as it is, today’s food appears inexpensive. Its high costs, however, are hidden by government subsidies already given these large agribusinesses, at the exclusion and destruction of small farmer operators.
    More subsidies, is not the answer, and would only perpetuate the failed factory farming model. It is the wrong answer to solving the quality of food for Americans.
    What are needed are tax credits given to farmers who raise quality products, without poisoning the product, the land, air or water. What if we showed Americans what happens to factory-farmed livestock before it is presented at the check out window of the local fast food chain?
    What if the executives of the chemical corporations, that have hijacked American agriculture, were banned from rotating in and out of jobs at the USDA and other policy-making agencies? This alone could decrease the perpetuation of unhealthy food production and distribution in America.
    We are thankful that our medical scientists are keeping us ahead of the diseases that our food is plaguing us with, such as heart disease, diabetes and obesity. What if we eliminate our failed factory farming model? Would it not free medical science to advance the human race beyond our dreams?
    What if American’s were given honest information about their food, so they could make real decisions as consumers? What if America was not the nation of buyer-beware, and became the land where business was smaller scaled, and actually cared.

  • Same as banking and auto? You mean nationalization?

  • Yo, how about if you just find a local farmer raising beef on grassland and buy his product? The more people who do that, the more small farmers we have providing quality meat. Then maybe all those filthy, polluting CAFOs will go out of business.
    Problem is people want to pay next to nothing for beef, and they don’t care about the welfare of the animal, just their pocketbooks. Then they complain when the meat is tainted, and they want Daddy Government to step in and fix everything.
    You are clamoring to fix something that shouldn’t be fixed but destroyed. Take all those acres growing wheat and corn and soy subsidized by our tax dollars and return them to grazing lands. Let’s get back our small farms where consumers can buy directly from the farmer. Instead, the FDA and USDA are running roughshod over them. For shame!