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Beef: Rethinking What’s for Dinner

October 7, 2009
courtesy of JelleS

courtesy of JelleS

Ground beef is a cheap, ubiquitous source of protein. And after reading this New York Times article by Michael Moss, it’s no longer welcome on my dinner table.

The problem is the processing. Occam’s razor would suggest that beef processors make ground beef by actually grinding up beef. I pictured them using a much larger version of my grandma’s old-timey, crank-handled grinder. And this is kind of true. But what the package doesn’t tell you is that ground beef contains beef scraps, fat scraps, and the ominously vague “beef trimmings.” In addition to being made from bits of “meat” no sensible person would eat whole, ground beef is surprisingly well-traveled. A single package of ground beef might contain meat from several cows from several countries. The process used to manufacture ground beef is unsettlingly akin to the process used to make hot dogs. But at least everyone knows that you shouldn’t ask what goes into a hot dog (chicken entrails? puppy dog tails? pork feet? cow noses?).

Why not make ground beef from cow parts you’d actually want to eat? Money, honey. Making ground beef out of castoff fresh and frozen cow parts makes for a cheaper product. When we’re talking about food, however, cost shouldn’t be the primary goal. What about health? What about safety? What about eating food that doesn’t contain “beef trimmings”? Ick.

The problem with using beef scraps — aside from the “ick” factor — is that they’re more likely to be contaminated with nasty bacteria, such as E. coli. Not all E. coli are bad, but the worst of the bunch can be lethal. Just ask Stephanie Smith, the woman featured in the New York Times article. She can no longer walk because she ate a Cargill hamburger patty tainted with a deadly strain of E. coli known as O157:H7. A moment on the lips, a lifetime loss of motor function. Sure, perhaps this could have been prevented with more testing, as the NYT article suggests, but I think the real problem is the process itself.

Smith’s burger contained scraps from four slaughterhouses. One of the ingredients was something called “fine lean textured beef.”

The company, Beef Products Inc., said it bought meat that averages between 50 percent and 70 percent fat, including “any small pieces of fat derived from the normal breakdown of the beef carcass.” It warms the trimmings, removes the fat in a centrifuge and treats the remaining product with ammonia to kill E. coli. With seven million pounds produced each week, the company’s product is widely used in hamburger meat sold by grocers and fast-food restaurants and served in the federal school lunch program.

Yuck. And double yuck. It’s enough to make a girl consider grinding her own beef. Or perhaps I should just abstain.

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