The Trouble with Meat

By Motavalli, Jim; Rembert, Tracey C. | E Magazine, May-June 1998 | Go to article overview

The Trouble with Meat


Motavalli, Jim, Rembert, Tracey C., E Magazine


In 1992, when he was 11 years old, Damion Heersink of the southeastern Alabama town of Dothan attended a Boy Scout campout, and unwittingly ate a quarter-sized piece of uncooked hamburger. It's certainly not unusual for kids to eat hamburgers: American kids eat an average of five of them a week, mostly in fast-food restaurants. But Damion's hamburger was contaminated with E. coli [O.sub.157] : [H.sub.7], a particularly virulent but by no means uncommon bacteria that is caused by fecal contamination of meat, and aggravated by the grinding process that produces hamburger.

Damion was one of the lucky ones. Although he became very sick and endured a lengthy hospitalization, he lived. His mother, Mary Heersink, who has become an articulate spokesperson for Safe Tables Our Priority (STOP), a national group lobbying for reform of food safety laws, says, "We're very lucky to have him alive; if he hadn't had very aggressive treatment [due to the work of his physician father and a family friend who specializes in E. coli cases], he would have died." Because of his illness, Damion lost 30 percent of his lung tissue, and the lining of his heart. His immune system was shattered, leaving him at constant risk of infection. His verbal ability was impaired, his kidney function limited, and he will be susceptible to hypertension later in life.

Lauren Beth Rudolph, a six-year-old from Carslbad, California with blond bangs and an engaging smile, wasn't as lucky as Damion, who is now filling out college applications. In late 1992, Lauren Beth ate a fast-food cheeseburger laced with E. coli. Like Damion, she was attacked by hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS), a wasting disease that invades nearly every organ in the body and destroys the blood's ability to clot. But unlike Damion, she couldn't fight it off, and became one of the 10 percent of E. coli victims who die from severe HUS, which itself kills an estimated 500 people a year. Lauren Beth succumbed to a heart attack a few days before the beginning of 1993, a year which would be marked by a massive outbreak of E. coli and the deaths of three children at Seattle, Washington Jack in the Box restaurants. Almost unknown and unidentified as a risk factor in meat until the early 1980s, E. coli [O.sub.157] : [H.sub.7] has become the leading cause of kidney failure in American children. In 1997 alone, some 25 million pounds of hamburger were found to be E. coli infected and recalled.

Unfortunately, the grim reality of E. coli infection is not an isolated stain on the reputation of an otherwise hygenic American meat supply. E. coli, along with other meat-borne pathogens like Salmonella ententidis and Campylobacter, both found in poultry, can be traced to our highly productive "factory farms." Genetically "optimized" pigs, cattle, sheep, turkeys and chickens are raised in tightly packed confinement systems -- an ideal breeding ground for bacteria. And the looming problem is made far worse by the filthy, conditions in America's slaughterhouses, where the profit motive has accelerated line speeds and made effective government meat inspection nearly impossible.

The industry's answer to contaminated meat isn't basic reform of its production methods. It prefers cheaper alternatives, like chemical "dehairing" of cattle and the use of Superglue to seal up chickens' hindquarters -- both to remove sources of the fecal contamination that carry bacteria. And last December, the industry won Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval to attack the contamination problem through large-scale irradiation of meat with gamma rays from nuclear by-products cobalt-60 and cesium-137. Critics say the benefits of what the food industry prefers to call "cold pasteurization" (it does kill E. coli, for instance), are outweighed by its dangers, and that a far more comprehensive program is necessary to protect the meat supply.

Michael Colby, executive director of the Vermont-based Food & Water, says, "They're allowing the filth to flourish, then zapping it with radiation that's the equivalent of tens of millions of chest X-rays. …

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