How many unhappy cows did the burger in my child’s happy meal contain?

Not that we ever feed our children any happy meals, but this news report in today’s New York Times is compelling enough to make one want to give up meat entirely and become a vegetarian! Although the fault is hardly the meat’s. Rather, it lies in how that meat is processed and delivered to us in neatly packaged chunks in brightly lit supermarket fridges! It was just such a package that destroyed a young woman’s life as described in the NYT story today (and see this video report if words don’t move you enough):

Stephanie Smith, a children’s dance instructor, thought she had a stomach virus. The aches and cramping were tolerable that first day, and she finished her classes.

Then her diarrhea turned bloody. Her kidneys shut down. Seizures knocked her unconscious. The convulsions grew so relentless that doctors had to put her in a coma for nine weeks. When she emerged, she could no longer walk. The affliction had ravaged her nervous system and left her paralyzed.

Ms. Smith, 22, was found to have a severe form of food-borne illness caused by E. coli, which Minnesota officials traced to the hamburger that her mother had grilled for their Sunday dinner in early fall 2007.

So what exactly did that seemingly innocuous home-cooked “angus beef” hamburger contain (besides the bacteria that sent the young woman to the hospital)? Check out this astonishing graphic accompanying the article. Not quite what you might guess if you try to visualize how beef might be ground up to make a burger patty in any normal, sane kind of process. But we live in insanely industrial times, so:

Ground beef is usually not simply a chunk of meat run through a grinder. Instead, records and interviews show, a single portion of hamburger meat is often an amalgam of various grades of meat from different parts of cows and even from different slaughterhouses. These cuts of meat are particularly vulnerable to E. coli contamination, food experts and officials say. Despite this, there is no federal requirement for grinders to test their ingredients for the pathogen.

The frozen hamburgers that the Smiths ate, which were made by the food giant Cargill, were labeled “American Chef’s Selection Angus Beef Patties.” Yet confidential grinding logs and other Cargill records show that the hamburgers were made from a mix of slaughterhouse trimmings and a mash-like product derived from scraps that were ground together at a plant in Wisconsin. The ingredients came from slaughterhouses in Nebraska, Texas and Uruguay, and from a South Dakota company that processes fatty trimmings and treats them with ammonia to kill bacteria.

Using a combination of sources — a practice followed by most large producers of fresh and packaged hamburger — allowed Cargill to spend about 25 percent less than it would have for cuts of whole meat.

Aren’t the scales of modern industrial food production just mind-boggling? Think about this the next time you bite into a hamburger: how many cows’ body parts am I eating? which bits of the cow? and what other meat derivative is in there besides cow? Holy cow!!

There are many reasons advanced for vegetarianism, from ethical to environmental ones, and this story (especially the NYT video) makes for a particularly graphic example to turn people off meat. I can’t say I’m going to revert to vegetarianism myself (I grew up as one in India), but this only reinforces our increasing attempts to avoid mass produced meat products! If we can’t visualize the path of our dinner meats from individual well-raised animals from their farms all the way to the curry on our plates, we are safer off not eating that meat, aren’t we?

One thought on “How many unhappy cows did the burger in my child’s happy meal contain?

  1. Ian

    Makes me glad I quit eating meat. Of course the problem doesn't end there – the whole cross-contamination issue is a real risk, especially if you eat out. Is it time to switch the cat to a vegan diet? (I do wonder if it's time to switch the cat to non-beef foods…)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *