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Leave the “kill step” up to the consumer

In case you didn't have enough to worry about...

"Increasingly, Food Companies Cannot Guarantee Safety" NY Times 5/14/09


Are we doomed to eating overcooked food or playing Russian roulette with our meals? Convenience foods just got a little less convenient.

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  1. Wow, that is profound.

    I know there's been quite a push for trackability back to food origins in the U.S., like the pharmaceutical chain too.

    It's just such a different world anymore... think about how many diverse places your food comes from... potentially even in a single batch of whatever it is you're eating.

    1 Reply
    1. re: Cinnamon

      I know where 99% of my food comes from. Generally I buy direct from the farmer or rancher, when I don't I'm buying from a retailer who buys direct.

      1. re: tatamagouche

        More on the safety of our food supply...
        "E. Coli Path Shows Flaws in Ground Beef Inspection"

        1. re: Rmis32

          I read this this morning and it was disturbing- the worst was: "Dr. Kenneth Petersen, an assistant administrator with the department’s [USDA] Food Safety and Inspection Service, said that the department could mandate testing, but that it needed to consider the impact on companies as well as consumers. “I have to look at the entire industry, not just what is best for public health,” Dr. Petersen said." ....

          I naively thought the the companies could look after their own profits and the USDA was supposed to monitor food safety. I would be ashamed if I were him for saying that. It's unfortunate that some business owners place profits over food safety and ethics. The USDA needs to forget about these big lobbyists and focus on maintaining food safety. Period. There seem to be a lot of instances where inspectors note serious problems- and yet do nothing- merely issue a written recommendation. Why not be aggressive about food safety???

          1. re: QSheba

            Obama is moving under the radar on food safety issues. Look for lots of push back from the usual suspects. Write your congressmen and tell them you demand safe food! Otherwise, the big agriculture interests are going to win again.

            1. re: pikawicca

              Take more responsibiliity for your own food security. Seek out and buy from small producers, grow more yourself, eat more dry beans/grains, (organic).
              Do not rely on the Government to protect you from all risks. The Govenrmant cannot do that!!!!!! Government will always protect itself....first!!!!!!!

            2. re: QSheba

              Dr. Petersen made that statement because he knows the subject: testing products for pathogens does not equal safe food....

              1. re: Pollo

                How does Petersen's statement at ALL reflect that testing does not work? He clearly said he has to look out for the INDUSTRY-that public health is NOT the #1 priority. It comes down to money-hungry unethical CEOs that care more about $$$ than public safety and a government agency that is not using its full authority to protect consumers. From a scientific standpoint- testing products for pathogens does not guarantee safe food, but it does increase safety. My FIL is a microbiology professor with a PhD from Harvard- and he absolutely disagrees with your opinion Pollo. He's not in the food industry- but he does know pathogens VERY well.

                1. re: QSheba

                  We could ensure the safety of the food supply, but it would cost a whole lot of money. Would the public be willing to pay $12 per pound for hamburger they know is "safe"? I don't think so.

                  Dr. Petersen's statement was impolitic, but correct. You do have to consider the entire industry. Public health is important, but it can't be the only factor. You have to do a cost-benefit analysis.

                  (Disclaimer: I don't trust the stuff in the store, so grind my beef myself. If my time is worth anything, I'm paying a premium. But it's worth it to me.)

                  1. re: alanbarnes

                    You are assuming that testing will increase prices 600% and that the public is truly aware of food safety issues. Not everyone is as interested in food as people on Chowhound and not everyone is made aware of the horrible practices in agriculture- not just meat, but produce, dairy, etc. I believe that even most educated people aren't aware of how things are- it doesn't mean they're ignorant or dont' care, or wouldn't be wiling to pay more for safe meat- it probably just means they haven't devoted the time to learn more about it- probably because they assume things are safe- not revolting as described in the NY Times article.

                    Furthermore, I don't think Dr. Petersen's job SHOULD be to consider the industry- he should consider public health first. The agricultural lobby/ Cargill/Monsanto/etc. is certainly capable of looking after their own interests and profits. Instead the government caves to these lobbyists and simply "asks" them to put a safety plan in place, or regulate themselves, which clearly doesn't work. Safety aside- I think that what meat suppliers are allowed to get away with as far as "labeling" is deceptive. Chicken can be labled 100% natural- even if it has sodium, water and phosphates injected? Ground sirloin is not really ground sirloin but ground beef scraps at a particular fat content?The government should be looking out for the consumers- not corporations.

                    1. re: QSheba

                      $12 per pound is a made-up number. It isn't based on a detailed economic analysis. But there's no question that universal testing will cost money, and no guarantee that it will eliminate risk.

                      Plus, it will shut down the smaller operators. IMO the safest, cleanest commercial ground beef comes from reputable local butchers who grind fresh meat and sell it immediately. Mandate testing and they're out of business.

                      Government regulation by definition involves balancing interests. And before you can balance competing interests you have to consider them. Nobody said public safety isn't a priority. Nobody said it's anything other than the top priority. But it can't be the only consideration.

                      By and large we have a food supply that's safer than it ever has been. There are areas that need change, and the filthburger industry is one of them. But those changes need to come after considering all the interests and issues at hand. To do otherwise would result in chaos.

                  2. re: QSheba

                    QSheba/alanabarnes: to comment about the subject of testing you need to know the food industry. The statements/arguments you both make are due tho the lack of understanding. Quoting someone with a PhD...from Harvard or not means nothing unless they have food industry experience. Testing even 100% of product does not mean that incidents of sickness will be eliminated....end of story (ask a statistician to verify). Testing is nothing more than treating the "symptoms" and making everyone feel better (plus a good way to cover their a$$). Unless you address the cause of the problem you will continue to have these outbreaks and recalls.

                    1. re: Pollo

                      >>"to comment about the subject of testing you need to know the food industry."<<

                      To comment about the contents of a post you need to know what the post said. Try reading mine. I never said that testing would make the food supply safe, and specifically noted that universal testing carries "no guarantee that it will eliminate risk."

                      Glad you set me straight, though. I hate making stupid comments "due tho my lack of understanding."

                      1. re: alanbarnes

                        Sorry did not read the second post....in the first you dis say "Would the public be willing to pay $12 per pound for hamburger they know is "safe"? I don't think so".

                        1. re: Pollo

                          No worries.

                          I do think hamburger could be made absolutely safe, but testing alone won't come anywhere near accomplishing that.

                          The closest we can come to guaranteeing meat to be pathogen-free is to hermetically seal every cut and then irradiate it. I'm not saying it's a good idea, just that it's highly effective.

                          But IMO it's better to prevent pathogens from entering the food supply than to kill them or detect them once they're there. Strictly-enforced regulation of slaughtering wouldn't eliminate risk entirely, but it would go a long way.

                          Making meat traceable would be another step in the right direction. If we can identify when and where every oyster sold in the US was harvested, why can't we do the same with beef? And we don't need to re-invent the wheel - the EU already has a program in place that tracks a head of beef from the farm where it's born to the meat case at the store.

                          But improving slaughterhouse conditions and imposing traceability requirements cost money, and Americans do love their cheap protein. I don't think an article in the NY Times is going to have much effect on the typical Wal-Mart shopper who's buying a 5-pound chub of ground "beef."

                          1. re: alanbarnes

                            alanbarnes: I agree with ALL the points you make except the irradiation. Trust me when I say that for meat/fresh cut food industry this would be "rocket science"...based on personal, hands-on experience with irradiation equipment/procedures.....too many variables, too complex and too many negatives (taste, off-flavors, etc.)....

                2. re: QSheba

                  “I have to look at the entire industry, not just what is best for public health,” Dr. Petersen said."
                  I would think that the cost of recalling thousands of lbs of tainted ground beef, dealing with lawsuits and lost sales from frightened consumers would be ample incentive for the industry to embrace testing, but apparently I'm wrong

                  1. re: Rmis32

                    Apparently the cost of recalls is still less than what it would cost to implement testing. Certainly the the fear of gov't fines for failing inspections/closing down factories isn't sufficient to stop these companies from operating in unsanitary/unsafe conditions. Let's increase fines to pay for our deficit!

                3. re: Rmis32

                  One development on this front, re Congress:

                  Also, here is some relatively recent testimony from Petersen and others on food safety:

                  An excerpt of one of the above testimonies may shed some light on why everything isn't all perfect:

                  "While the meat and poultry acts have been amended many times, they do not allow us to address the significant risks facing our food supply as effectively and efficiently as possible. These laws should be modernized to allow for improved flexibility and coordination and to enable USDA to move quickly to address the emerging threats to the food supply." - Statement of Jerold R. Mande, Deputy Under Secretary before the House Committee on Agriculture, in July.

                  (I am not saying things would necessarily be perfect after any such law updates.)

              2. Widespread use of radiation on these staple prepared food products would be a great step in solving this problem. It can be applied after the product is packaged which would help in preventing post processing contamination. It is a safe and proven process.

                7 Replies
                1. re: NVJims

                  NVJim: to make a statement like that you must have never seen a food plant and/or irradiation facility? All you need to minimize these problems is for people to develope common sense....

                  1. re: Pollo

                    If the origin of the food is both unknown and unknowable, and if any of the facilities involved in the food's production are unsanitary and/or inadequately monitored, all the "common sense" in the world will do you no good.

                    Irradiation is a method strongly urged by the WHO, whose staff presumably have seen more than a few food plants and radiation facilities. Contaminated food is not simply a threat to us supermarket shoppers, but to an entire world full of people who must eat to live, and WHO and all the rest of us have a stake in stamping out as much food-borne disease as possible. Irradiation is a powerful and relatively inexpensive tool in that battle.

                    More selfishly, and speaking as a serious Chowhound here, I wish I could buy irradiated fresh eggs, and remove that last bit of Russian-roulettishness out of making such things as mayonnaise and Caesar dressing...

                      1. re: Will Owen

                        Will: we are not talking here about saving the world's food supply....just making sure that pot pies and burgers are properly cooked. For that you do not need irradiation. WHO is staffed by "ivory towers" crowd who has no clue what goes on in the "real world". Irradiation is impractical for all but a select few food applications (i.e. spices)....way too expensive and way to complex for food industry....and I mean for US companies....which means suggesting use by 3rd world countries is a bit of a joke.....

                        1. re: Pollo

                          The kind of stuff we're talking about - at least some of us - can't be avoided by simply cooking the food right. Irradiation is not rocket science; it's been around since I was a kid, and that's been 60 years at least. I remember reading in grade school about how we would soon be buying steaks and fish off open shelves instead of out of cold boxes, and even then it was an inexpensive and easy process. Near as I can tell the only reason that didn't happen was the same kind of ignorance that killed a national health plan around the same time, in this case the notion that we'd all be forced to eat radioactive, glow-in-the-dark food. Oooo, scary!

                    1. re: NVJims

                      Food producers want irradiation so that they can sell you ground beef full of irradiated cow poop. Once irradiation is generally accepted they'll pull back on their efforts to keep clean because 1) it'll save them money and 2) irradiation will cover many sins.

                      I want poop free meat, not irradiated poop.

                      1. re: JC65

                        I'm with you on the poopless meat yeccch!

                    2. Why is this article surprising ... to anyone??

                      1 Reply
                      1. re: ipsedixit

                        I got over it quick but I have to admit I was surprised by the unashamed albeit somewhat apologetic (ogt) refusal to test (and absence of any requirement that they do so) by batch as it comes from processors because the potential chain of contamination would then be TOO transparent. W T living F ? Further words fail me.

                      2. I'll try it again w/out shouting in caps. Get a hunting and fishing license and cut out the corporate control. There is good fishing in every major urban area. It might even been rejuvenating.
                        (There, I've been good, please don't delete. It is food for thought.)

                        1. Yet many dine happily at chains. Think about the cost of cheap food.

                          1 Reply
                          1. re: Passadumkeg

                            There's another thread going right now with a great aphorism - "it's cheaper to pay the grocer than the doctor."

                          2. How many deaths will it take?
                            E. Coli Kills 2 and Sickens Many; Focus Is on Beef -NY Times 11/4/09

                            14 Replies
                            1. re: Rmis32

                              The threat from beef is relatively small. The top ten sources of food poisoning in descending order are leafy greens, eggs, fresh tuna, oysters, potatoes, cheese, ice cream, tomatoes, bean sprouts, and fresh berries.

                              Eating involves risk. Smart choices can minimize, but never eliminate, that risk. Sensationalism, on the other hand, discourages smart decision-making.

                              1. re: alanbarnes

                                Great comments and observation, Alan.

                                1. re: alanbarnes

                                  Al, an honest question. Did the lack of control over monitoring the agricultural food industry coincide w/ the Regan administration and/or the rise of corporate food production, ie. the Montasanto/Archer, Daniels, Midland?Cargill/Purdue/Armour ilk?
                                  I know Regan loosened regs and inspections. Ecoli was unheard of in the sixties and one used to get a raw egg in their Orange Julius at the mall. What changed or is it just better reported?

                                  1. re: Passadumkeg

                                    I'm not familiar with the history of ag inspections and enforcement, but I do know that the problem with salmonella in eggs is an unintended consequence of modern advances in veterinary medicine. Up until the 70s or so, Salmonella gallinarum (which doesn't affect people) was a real problem in chicken flocks. One infected individual could cause all the birds on the farm to get sick and die. So the vets figured out how to wipe out s. gallinarum.

                                    Unfortunately, its niche in the ecosystem was filled by salmonella enteritidis, the bug that causes humans to get sick. When s. gallinarum was around, it consistently out-competed s. enteritidis. With that competition gone, s. enteritidis really took off. And since it can infect a chicken without causing any symptoms, it's harder to catch (and the chicken farmers have limited incentive to detect it).

                                    Of course the production of food in factories is a huge risk factor, too. About one out of every 30,000 eggs is contaminated, so you can have one in your Orange Julius every day for 80 years or so without having to worry. But what if an agribusiness breaks 100,000 eggs into a vat, mixes them up, adds various preservatives, stabilizers, etc., and pours the resulting mixture into cartons? Odds are that three of those eggs will be infected. And those three bad eggs will contaminate the other 999,997.

                                      1. re: alanbarnes

                                        "... tens of thousands of people are still sickened annually by this pathogen ( E. coli), federal health officials estimate, with hamburger being the biggest culprit. Ground beef has been blamed for 16 outbreaks in the last three years alone..." (NY Times http://www.nytimes.com/2009/10/04/hea...
                                        )Sensationalism or a simple statement of the facts? I have read that a package of ground beef commonly found in the supermarket, often contains meat from 100 different cows. Thus, even a low incidence of contamination can multiply the risk dramatically ( as your comment about eggs points out.).

                                        Personally, the thought of a juicy hamburger used to whet my appetite. Now it makes me queasy.

                                        1. re: Rmis32

                                          There's some question as to the number of cases of e. coli poisoning in the US each year, and the claim that ground beef is "the biggest culprit" is apparently the subject of significant dispute. But I'll leave that to the statisticians.

                                          Instead, let's look at the issue of sensationalism. Any time a story focuses on the horrors a single victim has gone through, it's sensationalistic IMO. You can sell papers by featuring an attractive young person whose life has been ruined by a drunk driver, or by cancer, by a lightning strike, or by some other "unfair" circumstance. Tragedy has been entertainment since the ancient Greeks. But when discussing public health issues, it's irresponsible to focus on one person's misery without addressing the big picture.

                                          And the big picture is that e. coli is a tiny part of the food safety problem. The CDC estimates that there are about 75,000 symptomatic cases of e. coli O157:H7 infection each year, compared to 2 million cases of giardia, 2.5 million cases of campylobacter, and 23 million cases of norovirus. (http://www.cdc.gov/ncidod/EID/vol5no5... .) Not to say that we don't need to fix the problem, but let's put it in perspective.

                                          OTOH I agree completely that industrially-ground meat is far more likely to be contaminated than stuff ground in smaller batches. That's why when I want a juicy hamburger I buy a chuck roast and grind it myself. No queasiness required.

                                          1. re: alanbarnes

                                            If you're concerned about food poisoning, you need to read this.

                                            1. re: pikawicca

                                              Food poisoning can definitely ruin your life. But you have to compare the risk (both the probability and the severity of an adverse outcome) to the cost of avoiding it.

                                              Not to be unsympathetic, but bad things happen to lots of people every day. It's only because we live in the age of sensationalistic news coverage and instant access to information that we're inundated with these stories.

                                              You take a risk every time you get out of bed in the morning. A bigger risk when you walk out the door. And a risk that's far greater than that posed by foodborne illness every time you get in your car and drive to work. Making things safer is good, but ignoring big risks because we've been hypersensitized to small ones doesn't make sense.

                                              1. re: alanbarnes

                                                What happened to that woman was completely preventable. But like they say: "You have to pay for stupidity".....Darwinism is alive and well...

                                    1. re: alanbarnes

                                      RE: "The threat from beef is relatively small. The top ten sources of food poisoning in descending order are leafy greens, eggs, fresh tuna, oysters, potatoes, cheese, ice cream, tomatoes, bean sprouts, and fresh berries"

                                      I read the same article....writen by some pseudo-scientific think tank (moroons) that blames the foods and not the people (i.e. end users)...realy smart. Oh, yes potatoes definitively come to mind when it comes to risky foods....if the article was published in the National Enquirer I would have not issues.....

                                      1. re: Pollo

                                        The Center for Science in the Public Interest is "some pseudo-scientific think tank" The article is well-documented and based on solid data. You can quibble with the data, and you can certainly disagree with some of the positions the CSPI takes, but they've been around for nearly 40 years and are generally pretty well respected.

                                        The article doesn't blame food. It identifies the foods that are the most common vectors for disease. Given that leafy greens are the most common vector, can you please explain how stupid end-users are supposed to prevent foodborne illness from their, oh, bagged spinach?

                                        1. re: alanbarnes

                                          The article mis-represents the reasons for the outbreks and gives false impression that it is the food itseld that is the reason for the outbreaks. Take the "potato" example - it's not the potato itself that is the culprit but the final products (i.e. potato salads) that are responsible. The document is NOT well documented by any (scientific) means (where are the references?). Who are the authors?...their background? This is the kind of document that is published by a lobby group and is designed to confuse the already naive/un-educated public. One thing that is kind of funny is that beef (ground beef) is no where on the list. And let me tell you from having personaly visited number of beef and leafy green processors I will eat the greens any day over ground beef.

                                          1. re: Pollo

                                            Whether or not the criteria for CSPI's list passes hard scientific scrutiny, I think what is of value is the fact that it does point out what food have a higher propensity for food-related illnesses. For me, it doesn't so much put these items on a "No-Go" list, so much as it informs me that proper sourcing, cleaning and prep methods are even more important for these items. I think what alanbarnes points out about risk is the key. The element of risk is present in everything we do in life. Knowing of the risks and their general probability helps guide one to mitigate those risks.

                                  2. You know, reading all this and I think, in all the hundreds, maybe thousands of burgers I have eaten in my life time, I don't recall one ever giving me food poisoning. Oh, well. Food paranoia alive and well, I think. Have fun!