Schlosser tells the story of Lee Harding, a 22-year-old man living in Pueblo who, in 1997, came down with a “virulent” case of E. coli. Public health officials in Pueblo asked Harding to recall what he had eaten five days before his illness—which was severe and required hospitalization, but from which he recovered—and though Harding believed beef patties from Hudson Foods, which he and his family had eaten, could not be responsible (because only he got sick), Pueblo officials tested the patties and found the same virulent E. coli strain. Hudson Foods eventually recalled some of its products about a month later, but by that point, as Schlosser reports, “about 25 million pounds of the ground beef had already been eaten.”
Schlosser next focuses on the safety not just of factory workers in the meatpacking industry, but of the meat itself that that industry produces. Schlosser notes, throughout the chapter, that it is actually quite difficult to track the source of food-borne pathogens in the United States. There are several reasons for this, some more preventable than others: a great deal of meat is produced in this country; government oversight in meatpacking plants is rather low; and meat production is a complex system with many inputs, making cause and effect hard to determine.
Schlosser describes the nature of these outbreaks in the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s, and why food contamination in the era of factory farming and high-efficiency food production is so dangerous. In the pre-agribusiness era, the relatively small region served by smaller food-production companies meant that when disease-causing E. coli or Salmonella were found in food, far fewer people would be affected and the outbreak was much easier to respond to. But vast increases in the size of food-production facilities, coupled with slackened food regulations pushed through the federal and state governments sympathetic to the economic interests of agribusinesses, have increased the likelihood and scale of lethal food-born pathogens.
Here, Schlosser again notes that deregulation is perhaps the most immediately treatable cause of certain food-borne illnesses in the United States. The regulators who are charged with ensuring that meatpacking workplaces are safe for employees are similar to the regulators (though from different branches of the government) who are tasked with making sure the beef that passes through the plants is clean. More than anything, effective regulators require access to plants, time to look them over, and money—to make sure there are enough health inspectors to actually do the job.
Schlosser notes that, in the first half of the 20th century, hamburger-grade beef had a bad reputation for food cleanliness, since typically the least desirable parts of the least desirable cattle were slaughtered to make them. Although fast-food companies like White Castle, on the east coast, helped to destigmatize hamburger meat after the Second World War, problems still arose at fast-food outfits, including the notable Jack in the Box E. coli scandal of 1993, in which Jack in the Box employees accidentally served undercooked hamburgers that were laced with E. coli.
As before, in the early part of the 20th century, drastic changes occurred in government oversight of food safety. Before the 20th century, consumers were tasked with “being aware” of the illnesses that could arise from undercooked meat and poultry. But government regulations passed during and after Theodore Roosevelt’s administration made the health and safety of America’s food supply a government priority.
Schlosser identifies several factors that most likely led to the Jack in the Box E. coli outbreak in 1993, and to other, similar (if less noteworthy) cases since then. The primary vector for E. coli is fecal matter, and cattle at large feedlots are now fed a slurry of food that, instead of simply grain, can include bits and pieces of other animal matter, including bone, tissue, and feces. E. coli can enter the cows’ guts this way, and can then be “amplified” by the close quarters of large feedlots and meatpacking facilities, especially if these facilities are less than stellar in terms of cleanliness.
The speed with which factories load cattle into meatpacking facilities is one of the primary issues in maintaining a clean butchering environment. The more cattle that pass through a plant in a given timeframe, the denser that plant is with cattle, and the less likely it is that a worker will notice diseased or malnourished cattle, or will be able to ensure cleanliness of the animals. This vastly increases the change that fecal matter might make its way into the meatpacking process.
Schlosser argues that the beef industry, since Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle in 1906, has sought to “deflect” any criticism the government or consumers might direct its way whenever outbreaks of virulent bacteria are caused by ground beef. By the 1980s, a cozy relationship between the beef industry and the USDA, the government agency responsible for ensuring that beef supplies are healthful, meant that the beef industry was essentially expected to self-monitor—with the consequence that enormous lapses were permitted along the production chain and that there was little governmental “teeth” to spur recalls when tainted meat was produced.
It’s worth noting that Schlosser is by no means interested in the government solving all problems, or in regulating all industries—Schlosser does lionize, after all, Hank’s, and other ranchers’, self-reliance and individual initiative. But Schlosser notes that, where safety is concerned, there can be no more important independent actor than the government, which has no overriding concern for the “bottom line.”
But Schlosser writes that he believes some progress can be made, even within a system where government oversight of factory-farm meat production is minimal. David Theno, hired by Jack in the Box in the wake of the 1993 E. coli scandal, instituted a system of “performance-based grading” at all Jack in the Box locations, and made sure that managers were trained in proper food-handling and cooking techniques for meat. Although this process occurs just before meat is cooked—and not along the production line—both Theno and Schlosser seem to agree that a “performance-based” compliance system, with real consequences for failure to comply, can make for safer beef—and isn’t very expensive for the corporation in question.
Meanwhile, Theno advocates other kinds of reforms, ones that can tackle, through moderate and easy-to-replicate guidelines, appropriate cooking temperatures in restaurants. In an ideal world, meat would be prepared perfectly cleanly, and therefore restaurants wouldn’t have to be so vigilant about cooking at the appropriate temperature—but that world is almost a utopia, and it’s not difficult to make sure employees know at what temperature, and for how long, meat must be prepared in order to be safe.
Schlosser notes the difficulties the USDA faces in demanding recalls of meat products—even beef that has been demonstrated to possess virulent strains of dangerous pathogens. Because of the meatpacking and processing companies’ leverage with the federal government—and with the aid of lobbyists who support various political campaigns of congressmen—the USDA is often forced to merely implore or cajole companies, rather than force or fine them, which means that the companies can then choose how and when to recall the meat. This leeway is ostensibly allowed by the government, and demanded by meat-processing companies, because the “trade secrets” of those companies’ meatpacking technologies must be protected. Schlosser notes that Bill Clinton introduced bills that would increase fines and penalties for companies producing tainted beef after the Jack in the Box scandal in 1993, but Republican congresses over the next several years consistently opposed these measures, and sided with the meatpacking companies.
Even if pathogens are detected in food, however—even if the government invests sufficient funds into monitoring meatpacking plants—that doesn’t guarantee that the meat will be recalled in the event that a pathogen is found. Thus, in addition to monitoring, enforcement of severe penalties and immediate demands for recall ought to be in the government’s purview. But, as Schlosser here notes, lobbyists for the meatpacking industry have successfully kept away such mandatory penalties, arguing that it would stymie the industry, or make it no longer profitable to produce meat in the US on such a large scale. Schlosser doesn’t buy this argument, and feels that government enforcement would only result in safer beef for individuals.
Schlosser further notes that USDA inspectors, when they are present in meatpacking plants, are often so hopelessly behind the speed of the plants’ production that they cannot possibly account for the cleanliness of every stage of meat production. Meatpacking corporations argue that this state of affairs is OK—and have developed alternate technologies to make beef “safe,” including irradiation. Irradiated meat is treated with gamma rays in the plant—the rays “disrupt the DNA” of any foodborne pathogens and make it impossible for them to reproduce. Although the American Medical Association agrees that eating irradiated meat is safe, irradiation still doesn’t address systemic problems with safety protocols within plants that could target issues of cleanliness at their source.
In addition, the mere presence of inspectors in a plant by no means guarantees that those inspectors will find everything, mark down every infraction, and thus keep the plant perfectly safe. Inspectors are human beings like anyone else, and are prone to error. The fewer the inspectors, the more likely the error. Thus, Schlosser implies, plants must have adequate numbers of inspectors to insure that they are not overworked, that they are ready and able to spot infractions of proper hygiene when they seem them.
Schlosser ends the chapter with two rather sobering facts. First, a large amount of cheap beef, produced quickly in factories with the least-stringent cleanliness oversight, is frequently shipped to the nation’s schools—which with their limited budgets are looking for the lowest prices. Instances of E. coli contamination from meat served in schools—as occurred in North Carolina, Georgia, and Washington in 1998 alone—underscores just how immediate the impact of these inadequate safety policies can be.
Another unintended consequence of low-quality meat and lack of government funding. Because schools across the US are systemically defunded by the states tasked with supporting them, those schools must purchase whatever beef they can afford. And if that beef has not been inspected properly, American students will have a higher likelihood of getting sick.
Second, Schlosser writes that the cleanliness of beef production, although vastly important, cannot make beef preparation in commercial kitchens any cleaner—workers at fast-food restaurants must be trained, as the workers at Jack in the Box were after the 1993 scandal, to handle and cook meat properly. Unfortunately, Schlosser concludes, a great many under-trained and overwhelmed employees at fast-food restaurants sacrifice food safety for quickness of food “delivery,” to the customer, no surprise considering it is “throughput” and speed that dominates the bottom line at these establishments.
Schlosser argues, convincingly, that safety in a complex system requires a complex and multifaceted solution. It’s not enough to have inspectors, and it’s not enough merely to make sure employees at a given restaurant chain know how to cook meat properly. True safety in meat production requires all these factors to exist in concert with one another.