Friday, November 16, 2012

Protecting yourself from big agribusiness

I’m probably dating myself, but I remember a time when people didn’t die from eating a hamburger. The spinach in our salads didn’t send us to the hospital. We could use raw eggs in things like mayonnaise. You didn’t have to cross your fingers when you bought some sliced ham at the deli to make sandwiches for your kids’ school lunches.

Things have certainly changed, haven’t they?

Now I’m not saying that bad things didn’t happen back in in the “good old days”. I’m sure they did, but we didn’t have catastrophic food recalls like the recent one at Alberta’s XL foods where millions of pounds of meat were recalled and eventually destroyed.

What’s changed?

Almost every bit of your daily food, available at every supermarket, is now grown, harvested and processed by big business. In order to keep the price as low as possible, these businesses must work with large quantities and must produce them in the cheapest way possible. Margins are small and competition is fierce. Only the strong will survive and to be strong you must be big. Small producers just get swallowed up or are driven out of business.

Let’s focus on the recent XL debacle. It started at the US border around September first when some burger meat from XL failed a routine E. coli test. By the time things came to a head, millions of pounds of meat were involved and over 1,800 products were recalled across North America.

At first it looked to be just hamburger products, as usual, since in the grinding of the meat, E. coli bacteria which will be found on the surface of beef gets mixed in and spreads throughout the hamburger because of the grinding process. When you’re dealing in the quantities plants like XL does, a huge amount of product is then going to be suspect.

More surprising, though, was the fact that as the XL investigation proceeded, steak products also began to show up in positive tests. That is exceptionally disturbing. Here’s why:

The reason you generally are never offered rare burgers at restaurants anymore is that they get their ground beef from the large producers. Since that source is suspect, burgers must be well-cooked in order to assure any E. coli present has been killing. Well and good. Restaurants are just wisely covering their butts.

But what about steaks? Steaks are seldom served well-done. Since E. coli, if it’s present, is on the surface of the steak, it is killed in cooking even the rarest of steaks, thus neutralizing the danger. Now we find out that whole muscle cuts from XL have been found with E. coli present on the interior of the meat where it will not necessarily be killed during cooking.

What happened?

Needle tenderization appears to be the cause. This is a way for tougher cuts of beef to be tenderized and therefore more attractive to consumers. In other words, producers and retailers can sell cheaper cuts of meat to be cooked as steaks (the most popular way of cooking beef) and keep the price down.

The problem is that a needle tenderizer also drives any surface contaminants into the center of the cut, where, if it’s a steak, won't necessarily be cooked to a high enough temperature to kill things like E. coli.

Again, when you’re dealing in huge quantities and widespread distribution, something like this is a nightmare. As far as I’m aware (and I’ve looked), no one died from eating any contaminated XL beef, but many were made ill. It could have been far worse.

What I found almost laughable in the aftermath was the food industry, in order to better the public’s perception of what was happening, went after the “mom and pop abattoirs”, stating that their record was much better than the smaller operators. If you only take into account the quantity of meat processed, of course the big operators like XL foods will come out better. They process thousands of cattle every day. A smaller abattoir will handle just a fraction of that amount. However if something goes wrong at a small operation, the amount of damage will be less severe and probably more localized. We’re talking apples and oranges here, folks.

It’s also since come out that XL’s plant was not operating within its own safety guidelines, let alone the government’s. That’s never a good thing, regardless of the size of the operation.

To my mind, one’s best bet is to deal with meat that came from a smaller scale operator, preferably one your butcher knows and trusts so you can be more sure of what you’re buying – or at least as sure as humanly possible. You can’t do that in your local supermarket when your burger meat may be coming from another country and contain the meat of several thousand cows.

When I was a kid, we never thought as we bit into a juicy, rare burger at a backyard barbecue, “Gee, I sure hope this doesn’t wind up killing me.”


Melodie Campbell said...

Really interesting post, Rick - I didn't know about the needle tenderization process. Many thanks for this.

Rick Blechta said...

It really just does not pay to buy cheap anymore. If money is an issue, just buy less and buy wisely. I haven't bought meat in a supermarket in well over two years. Why? Because of stuff like this. I buy from small handful of butchers who know exactly where their meats are coming from and they're handled. I know in the store it's all handled correctly because I can see what they're doing.

Thanks for commenting!

Vicki Delany said...

I really noticed the difference in agriculture when recently driving through California vs where I live in Prince Edward County. There: mile upon mile of fields with no houses in site, busloads of workers, portapotties in the fields. Here - small family farms, a house every kilometer or so many with chicken coops, fields of an acre or two.

HelenL said...

And don't forget the pink slime in hamburger, which made the media a few months ago.

Rick Blechta said...

Well, the bottom line really is to not buy ground beef at a supermarket. We now purchase only from our favourite butcher, Gasparro's, on Bloor Street near Ossington. Nick takes his top sirloin stewing beef chunks and grinds it for us right then. The difference is amazing, and if you compare it to extra lean ground beef at the supermarket, the price is actually comparable.

We have never bought and will never buy frozen hamburgers from anywhere. They don't taste that good and you have to cook the bejesus out of them to be sure you don't get sick. Why bother?

Thanks for writing in!