Thursday, December 31, 2009

Beef products aren't beef

Americans love hamburger. Some of my fondest childhood memories are of eating out in the backyard, my dad making special cheeseburgers (two VERY thin patties with a slice of sharp cheddar cheese pressed between them and the edges sealed), with buns toasted to perfection on the grill, smeared with bright yellow mustard and maybe a dab of ketchup, a big beefsteak tomato slice and a fresh, crisp green lettuce leaf. All the major food groups, held in a package that even kid hands could handle.

Yet as the horror stories of E. coli have grown in the past several years, I've basically avoided commercially made hamburgers, preferring to buy local grass-fed beef and grind it myself (the food processor can do the job, if you don't mind the uneven chunks, which I kind of like). And even then, beef isn't on the menu very often.

So it was with a detached squeamishness that I read today's excellent New York Times story headlined, "Company's Record on Beef Treatment Questioned." To think of all that effort to eradicate problems that come up with processing, when for years just following common sense and sanitary practices were enough, just boggles the mind as it turns the stomach. And the company, while turning down the Times' request for interviews or tours of its facilities, sounded rather cavalier in its response:
“B.P.I.’s track record demonstrates the progress B.P.I. has made compared to the industry norm,” the company said. “Like any responsible member of the meat industry, we are not perfect.”
But it was this line that stopped me in my tracks:
The federal school lunch program used an estimated 5.5 million pounds of the processed beef last year alone.
Yes, adults can make the choice not to eat at McDonald's or Burger King and the other restaurants that rely on Beef Products Inc.'s ammonia-treated ground beef parts, but what choice do those children have? To eat or not eat? To go hungry and not be able to focus on the afternoon's assignments?

And yet despite their record of repeated contamination, which indicated the ammonia treatment isn't consistent at best, the officials of Beef Products Inc. are free to run their business as they see fit.

I have just one word for the practice: Criminal. And no amount of weasel-talk can make our food safer, just action on the part of the government we trust with our health.

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