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Monday, 5 November 2007

The Absurd Wastefulness of Meat Recalls

Why does it seem like every time I read the news, Americans are throwing another million pounds of meat away? I know we don't want people dying from E. coli infections, but something seems terribly wrong when in a world where 854 million people are hungry, we're throwing away a year's worth of meat production. It doesn't seem ethical, and it certainly doesn't seem frugal either.

A herd of cows walking the West African coast with their herder. Something tells me the people here wouldn't throw the meat from these cows away just because it hasn't been tested for E. coli bacteria. (Sorry about the photo quality, I took this from the back of a bike.)
In fact, it makes me really angry, and not just because I'm in Africa where I see hunger everyday. It's because there's hunger at home too, and someone's got to pay for all that wasted meat. Maybe we didn't buy the ground beef in question, maybe we filled out the necessary forms and got our reimbursements, but we're all still paying for the waste.

We pay for it in two ways. First, we pay for it with our reputation. How can we be surprised that we're considered the most wasteful country in the world when we throw millions of pounds of food away because there is the possibility that it might contain bacteria that could make people sick if it isn't cooked properly? Secondly, we pay for it when production facilities are forced to shut down and people lose their jobs and when meat prices rise because of shifts in supply and demand and increased costs of doing business in the industry.

Two things need to happen. Proper meat production procedures need to be firmed up and followed. Companies need to protect themselves from mass losses by preforming frequent, scheduled contamination tests and keeping proper records of them so they can at least identify bad meat later if it comes to that. The grocery supply chain shouldn't be a guessing game. This isn't the Price Is Right. Imagine... Spin the wheel and land on Clean Meat, E. coli, or Possible Contamination... Good luck!

The second thing is that people need to learn to be responsible for themselves. Cooking meat properly kills E. coli bacteria. Now think what it would mean if everyone cooked their meat properly. Or if the people who didn't took the blame instead of pointing fingers everywhere else. It would be a very different world. It makes me sick to think of how much food we've thrown away because we can't trust people to take responsibility for their health and follow safe cooking practices. And we need to remember that for most people, E. coli isn't that dangerous.

So what can we, as individuals, do to help fix this problem? First, we can make an effort to help ourselves by buying a meat thermometer and making sure our ground beef reaches at least 160 degrees Fahrenheit before we eat it. Here are a few good choices available from Amazon, all with free shipping for orders over $25: The RediFork Pro LCD Matrix, Rapid Read Tip has a grill-fork tip great for burgers on the BBQ. The Remote-check ET-7 Wireless Thermometer with 2 probes can be left in the meat (even in the oven!) and a wireless pager will beep you when your meat reaches the right temperature. If you're looking for a more basic thermometer the Taylor High-Temperature Instant-Read Pocket Thermometer is a great choice because it offers digital accuracy.

Next, we should focus on lobbying for better meat testing procedures rather than crying about how long it takes the USDA to pull meat off the shelves. Remember, the goal is to keep meat on the shelves, not to pull it off. There is a good reason why the USDA is reluctant to throw away millions of pounds of beef at the first sign of a scare. It's expensive and it's wasteful. People need to realize that there is a high price for their laziness in the kitchen, and sometimes that price is lives (though very, very rarely - only approximately 60 people die from E. coli in the U.S. per year and that's nothing compared to heart disease, lung cancer and traffic accidents. Really, walking down the street is probably more dangerous). They're the ones paying it, because they're the ones buying when they don't take the necessary steps to safe cooking.

Yes, I'm doing it. I'm making the very, very controversial suggestion that maybe all this beef doesn't need to be thrown away. Some of it certainly does, but maybe the hype and worry has gotten a little out of control and forced more meat into the trash than really needs to be there. I'm not an expert so I'm only questioning. This is just a suspicion; that's why I say maybe. If you know better, tell us so and comment!


Ever wondered how many cows it took to produce all this meat? Listen to what this guy has to say about cow weight/cow meat ratios.

Just in case you've been under a rock, here are some collected news articles on the most prominent ground beef recalls over the past half year or so:

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