Massive Christmas weekend beef recall underscores need for reform

The most under-reported news item from the Christmas weekend was the recall of 248,000 pounds of factory beef due to E. Coli O157:H7 contamination. The USDA reports that the source of the poisoned beef is National Steak and Poultry, a meat processing company out of Owasso, Oklahoma.

There's no official word on the number of Americans sickened by the meat, but for those of you following along, E. Coli O157:H7 is the bacteria that causes Hemolytic-Uremic Syndrome -- bloody diarrhea -- sometimes kidney failure, paralysis and, eventually, death.

The recall encompasses Colorado, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, South Dakota and Washington.

Of course Big Agra and the meatpacking industry will blame consumers for not cooking their beef sufficiently enough, which is sort of like blaming Charlie Sheen's wife for not sufficiently wrestling him to the ground and tying him up before he freaked out and (allegedly) attacked her.

The fact remains that we wouldn't have any problem with E. Coli O157:H7 if corporate agribusinesses were forced to follow two very basic rules.

First, feeding their cattle grass instead of corn and grain, which cows aren't designed to digest, would all but obliterate pre-slaughter incidences of E. Coli O157:H7. Multiple studies prove that cattle raised on an all-grass or hay diet do not carry or produce E. Coli O157:H7. In fact, if you moved a head of beef cattle out of the factory and into a field of grass, 80% of the E. Coli O157:H7 in the cattle's stomach would disappear within just five days.

The other contributing factor is the speed at which the cattle are slaughtered. Unsafe conditions for the (often illegal immigrant) meatpacking workers contributes to feces from the bowels dropping into the actual muscle meat itself.

In Minnesota, state legislators thought they could ameliorate this problem by passing the Packinghouse Workers Bill of Rights: a non-binding outline of safety measures, along with safety information for employees. But it turns out that most meatpacking workers had no idea the Bill of Rights even existed, and, naturally, the production lines continued on at their usual unsafe speeds, contributing to untold injuries and bacteria contamination.

Clearly, government guidelines like the Bill of Rights are ineffective. Real and legally binding regulations are long overdue. This has nothing to do with people improperly cooking their beef, it has everything to do with turning larger profits in lieu of basic safety and common sense reforms. How many workers and consumers will have to suffer before we take common sense approaches to regulating the meatpacking industry?

At some point the meat industry is going to have to wise up about this, and if it doesn't , it will be forced to wise up either through a consumer revolt or with government regulation. Like the health care industry, the status quo is unacceptable.
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