Aside from the few individuals who enthusiastically praise and adhere to the locally produced food movement, most consumers don’t think about where their food comes from.
However, food safety requires some knowledge of food sourcing and distribution; recent major food-borne illness outbreaks in the United States have stemmed from industrial, large-scale agricultural operations, colloquially known as factory farms. Remember the Valley Meat Co. beef recall of 2010? One million pounds of ground beef products were recalled.
How exactly does a million pounds of ground beef come to be contaminated with E. coli? E. coli lives in the gastrointestinal tract of cattle (and other animals). During the slaughter process, the intestines may come into contact with the cow’s meat, or in contact with another contaminated cow’s muscle (meat) or intestines. The key word is “ground” beef; this may literally consist of meat from hundreds to thousands of cattle. When the meat is ground, more surface area is exposed to E. coli, thus, the ground beef is more likely to be contaminated than, say, a steak. Even if one cow is infected with E. coli, the entire batch of ground beef places consumers at risk.
Recombining the ground meat particles for packaging moves exposed surfaces to the center of the mass. While cooking ground beef patties, E. coli and other bacteria can survive at the center of a patty even if the outer meat is cooked. This is why eating a hamburger cooked at less than “well-done” is not recommended.
Is Any Meat Safe?
Cleanliness in industrial slaughterhouses is questionable, since the desired rate of production and efficiency trumps quality and, sadly, this accounts for most slaughterhouses in the United States. However, there are numerous small-scale, local farmers who slaughter their own cattle and can oversee how the meat is handled.
Keep in mind that not all ground beef is contaminated with E. coli, and even if it were, high cooking temperatures would kill the bacteria. This situation is fine if the cooking takes place at home, where consumers can monitor the environment and process themselves. Needless to say, people become ill when ground beef (or any type of food) is cooked improperly.
More Than Meat At Risk
Food-borne illness doesn’t stop at meat; produce can be contaminated, too. Fruit and vegetables grown commercially are often fertilized with manure from livestock. This transmits any E. coli present in the manure to the outer surface of produce, hence the reason washing fresh produce is recommended.
Organic farms use manure from cattle, yet, according to the Organic Trade Association, “Certified organic farmers are prohibited from using raw manure for at least 90 days before harvest of crops grown for human consumption,” that raw manure must be composted before being used upon crops unless it is incorporated into the soil no less than 120 days before harvest. These regulations protect consumers from harmful bacteria—something that conventional