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Wednesday, June 10, 2009

What's Really In Your Hamburger

In the early 1900's hamburgers had a reputation similar to hot dogs: tainted, unsafe to eat, food for the poor, sold only at carnivals (not in restaurants), made from old meat, laced with preservatives. In the 1920's, White Castle, the nation's first hamburger chain, worked extremely hard to reverse this image, even naming their chain something that sounded pure. The 1950's and the rise of drive-ins and fast food restaurants is when the hamburger's image really turned. The fast food industry marketed hamburgers as an ideal meal for children - convenient, inexpensive, hand-held, easy to chew. By the early 1990's, the average American ate 3 hamburgers per week, more than 2/3 of these were from fast food restaurants. Thanks to some excellent marketing tactics, the hamburger had become America's national meal.

Although the reputation surrounding hamburgers has changed, their actual content has not. So, here's the truth about what's really in ground beef.

First, lose that image of a huge, brown, beef steer because the majority of ground beef comes from dairy cows that can no longer milk. Dairy cattle can live as long as 40 years, but most are slaughtered at the age of 4, when their milk output starts to decline. The stresses of industrial milk production makes these cows even more unhealthy than cattle from large feedlots and they are more likely to be diseased and riddled with antibiotic residues. Secondly, ground beef is largely responsible for the roughly 200,000 people that are sickened every year by foodborne diseases. The nontheraputic use of antibiotics in livestock feedlots has fueled pathogen mutation and the huge feedlots, slaughterhouses, and meat packing plants have proven to be an extremely efficient way to spread diseases.

The literature on the causes of food poising is full of scientific terms (colifom levels, aerobic plate counts, sorbitol, etc), but the bottom line behind why eating a hamburger can make you sick is: There is shit in the meat.

Escherichia coli O157:H7 (E. coli) is a mutation of a bacterium found abundantly in the human digestive system, but this mutated version attacks the lining of the intestine, causing diarrhea, abdominal cramps, possibly vomiting and fever. In 4% of E. coli cases, the toxins enter the bloodstream causing kidney failure, anemia, internal bleeding, seizures, neurological damage, or strokes, leading to permanent disabilities (like blindness or brain damage), or death. E. coli is now the leading cause of kidney failure among children in the US. (Children ages 7-13 eat more hamburgers than any other age group.)

E. coli was first isolated in 1982 and has received a large amount of public attention in the past 2 decades because of the significant number of cases. Efforts to eradicate E. coli have failed because of its resistance to acid, salt, and chlorine, its ability to live in fresh water or seawater, its ability to live on kitchen countertops for days, or in moist environments for weeks, its ability to withstand freezing and withstand temperatures up to 160 degrees, and its ability to spread easily - through stool.

People have been infected by drinking contaminated water, swimming in contaminated water (even at water parks), crawling on a contaminated carpet, and most commonly by eating contaminated ground beef. Outbreaks have also been caused by contaminated vegetables, fruits, and milk - all of which most likely came in contact with cattle manure, although the pathogen can also be spread by feces of deer, dogs, horses, flies, and humans (person to person transmission accounts for a significant portion of E. coli cases).

The way our meat is processed has created an ideal way for pathogens like E. coli to spread. The feedlots are essentially manure recirculation plants. Not only do the animals live amid pools of manure, but they are also fed manure. In Arkansas alone, nearly 3 million pounds of chicken manure are fed to cattle per year. (See also Feeding Our Food.)

The slaughterhouses and meat grinders only spread the contaminations further. As the hide is pulled off the animal by machine, if the hide was not cleaned properly, chunks of dirt and manure will fall from it onto the meat. When the stomach & intestines are removed, if it is not done properly, the contents will spill out onto the meat and the table. With the quick assembly line and the unskilled workers, manure spillage occurs in about 1 in 5 carcasses. A single gut splatter can quickly spread as hundreds of carcasses quickly move down the line. A contaminated knife will spread germs to everything it touches and the overworked, often illiterate slaughterhouse workers do not always practice stellar hygiene. Meat that falls onto the ground (where, by the way, factory workers are known to urinate - after all, there are large drains for the blood) is picked up and placed back on the conveyor belt.

The odds of contamination grow exponentially in ground beef because beef from many animals is mixed together, increasing the chance of an infected animal being part of each hamburger. A single hamburger contains meat from dozens or even hundreds of different animals. A single cow infected with E. coli can contaminate 32,000 pounds of ground beef. A USDA study found that 78.6% of the tested ground beef contained microbes that are spread primarily by fecal matter.

Anyone bringing raw ground beef into their home should consider it a biohazard. A study by Charles Gerba, a microbiologist at the University of Arizona, found that due to beef and poultry contamination, the average American sink contains more fecal matter than the average American toilet. According to Gerba, "you'd be better off eating a carrot stick that fell in your toilet than one that fell in your sink."

Breakfast: Cereal with soy milk
Lunch: Bean burrito at Anita's Mexican restaurant
Dinner: Avocado sandwich with lettuce, tomato, and Italian dressing, french fries on the side

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