Friday, October 30, 2009

How contamination gets ground into a global hamburger

The grilled hamburger that a 22-year-old Minnesotan, Stephanie Smith, ate on October 6, 2007, ravaged her nervous system and left her paralyzed from the waist down. She was among the 640 people sickened at that time by eating American Chef’s Selection Angus Beef Patties, which carried a virulent poison, E.coli.

Smith’s hamburger, made by Cargill Inc., a giant multinational, and bought at Sam’s Club, a division of Wal-Mart, had multiple origins. Ingredients came from slaughterhouses and processing plants in at least four states and a somewhat remote South American country, Uruguay.

Her burger was among those came from a grinder at the Cargill plant in Butler, Wis., on August 16, 2007. Its largest ingredient was beef trimmings, half fat, half meat, purchased from Greater Omaha Packing, supplemented by ingredients from two other U.S. plants, one in Texas and one in South Dakota.

The other supplier, a slaughterhouse in Uruguay, provided lean meat from grass-fed cattle, which helped maintain a certain minimum level of fat content in Cargill hamburgers – 26.6% in the lot from which Smith’s came, according to company records.

“In all,” a New York Times reporter wrote, “the ingredients for Ms. Smith’s burger cost Cargill about $1 a pound, or about 30 cents less than industry experts say it would cost for ground beef made from whole cuts of beef.” Cargill had $116,600,000,000 in revenue last year.
Like most large U.S. producers of ground beef, Cargill does not test ingredients for E.coli before grinding them into patties. One of the few giants that does so is Costco.

At what point did the contamination of the Smith burger occur?

The mix of ingredients from multiple places was such that none of the experts, federal, state, or Cargill, could tell.

The above information comes from an exhaustive report by Michael Moss published in the October 4 New York Times. The Times’ investigation revealed health safety flaws throughout the Cargill ground beef system. Federal records and other documentation showed that the inspection system of the whole ground beef industry is seriously flawed and that the U.S. Department of Agricultures had a “restrained approach” in carrying out its legal duty to enforce food safety.

The Times report throws light on how a multinational corporation fragments its production even under global economic integration. Cargill’s fragmentation creates a cross-border diffusion of responsibility whereby it is extremely difficult to identify specific sources of contamination and those who are responsible for it.

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