Is the government giving you food poisoning? Protect yourself from contaminated meat with easy procedures you can do in your own kitchen

Is the government giving you food poisoning? Protect yourself from
contaminated meat with easy procedures you can do in your own kitchen

If you’ve ever had food poisoning, I’m sure you’re not eager to repeat the experience. But many people feel that food safety is out of their control, and that government organizations like the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) will keep us all as safe as possible from contaminated foods. Unfortunately, the grim reality is that not all countries measure up to U.S. food sanitation standards; yet the USDA is still allowing foods to be imported from places proven to have substandard conditions.

Despite the fact that the USDA can’t seem to get it right, food safety is a fairly simple issue and, in most cases, one over which you do have control.

Flies, feces, and disease: A recipe for a Mexican meat packing scandal

Mexico is well known for its problems with water contamination: Montezuma’s revenge is almost an accepted part of any trip to that country. But Mexican standards of cleanliness are lacking in other areas as well-ones that you don’t have to travel there to be affected by.

In 1999, USDA inspectors arrived in Mexico to tour meat packing plants exporting products to the United States. What they found shocked them: flies, diseased carcasses, meat contaminated by feces-all marked for distribution. And this wasn’t an isolated incident. Roughly 50 percent of the plants visited by inspectors failed to meet the minimum sanitation standards. Following this tour, the inspectors called for an emergency review of all 37 Mexican plants providing meat to U.S. markets. The request was denied by the USDA. Even worse, it didn’t even bother to send inspectors back to Mexico for updated inspections for an entire year after the initial visits. When confronted about this negligence, the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service program coordinator John C. Prucha said “we didn’t get around to it for almost a year. It was a matter of priorities. We were looking at all our countries, not just Mexico.”

It seems to me, John, that when your own inspectors call for emergency action, priorities may need to be reexamined.

The problems in Mexican plants may not surprise you. After all, Mexico has never set the world standard for hygiene. But these sorts of issues aren’t unique to impoverished nations. Wealthy, developed countries around the world-countries that cannot blame negligence on financial strain or lack of technology -are falling short when it comes to food safety.

Why the French should stick to fries and leave our meat alone

Meat packing plants in France, one of Europe’s most “civilized” nations, also failed to meet U.S. sanitation standards. USDA officials again cited instances of fecal contamination. They also noted that at least one company allowed dirty water to drip onto raw meat. Inspectors found that employees at seven different plants failed to wash their hands after handling contaminated meat or after using the restroom. In total, 13 out of 19 plants were found to have serious sanitation problems; yet of these 13, only seven were banned from exporting their products-and even those mandates were only temporary!

This time, however, inspectors didn’t bother calling for further review from USDA officials. In fact, they left 17 other French plants exporting to the United States uninspected– despite the problems found with the other companies.

These inconsistencies are the norm with the USDA: It creates regulations and guidelines for food safety and sanitation and then ignores them. Over 50 percent of foreign meat trading partners continue to export products to the United States despite substandard conditions.

Unfortunately, there is no way to tell where the meat you buy in the grocery store came from. It is USDA policy that food retailers can mix foreign and domestic brands without labeling as to the products’ origin(s).

However, it is possible to make your food safe, no matter where it came from–with just a few simple steps.

Irradiation, pasteurization, hydrogenization...
which food sanitation techniques can you trust?

What many people don’t realize is that contamination is only on the surface of the meat. So even if you’re unlucky enough to purchase less-than-pure meat, there are steps you can take to make sure that it’s safe to eat.

By the time it reaches the supermarket, most meat has undergone some sort of sterilization process. The most common one is ultraviolet light irradiation. This is an effective, cheap method of killing bacteria on the surface of a food item. But it kills all the bacteria-good and bad-so if the food becomes contaminated after the irradiation process (during handling and preparation in restaurants, in most cases), it lacks the beneficial organisms that could prevent the harmful bacteria from spreading. Many consumers are uneasy with the idea of exposing their food to ultraviolet light, so the search for other sanitation processes has continued.

Kansas State University scientists have come up with another way to sanitize the surface of meat: using a lactic acid solution. Their process involves dipping the meat in lactic acid, a natural antibacterial agent, and then pasteurizing it by heating it to 176 degrees! Since that doesn’t kill all the germs, they then propose vacuum packing the meat and blasting it with microwaves. University scientists seem determined to destroy meat the way they have destroyed natural milk-by heating it to death.

But they have a problem. Since their process discolors the meat (small wonder), consumers won’t buy it.

The simplest way to kill germs on meat is to soak it in 3 percent hydrogen peroxide (the kind available in any supermarket).

It’s up to each of us to take the necessary steps to ensure that the food we eat is safe-the government will not do it for us.

Actions to take:

(1) Buy whole cuts of meat from your local supermarket. Once you get them home, store them in the freezer for 24 hours. This will kill any parasites.

(2) I suggest eating meat in its most nutritious form–raw, rare, or medium rare. Before serving the meat, let the whole cut soak in 3 percent hydrogen peroxide solution for five minutes, dry it with a towel, and then slice or grind it. Eat it within an hour of preparation.

(3) Don’t buy ground meats (beef, pork, veal, turkey, etc.). If the surface of a piece of meat is contaminated and that cut is then ground, the entire batch becomes contaminated. Grind your own meat at home, after storing the cut in the freezer overnight and soaking it in hydrogen peroxide.

(4) Keep in mind that the commentary above refers to a scenario involving the transfer of meat from a slaughterhouse, to a supermarket, and then to your table at home. Dining out is a different matter.

Good restaurants will rarely make you sick. They have this paranoid idea that a food poisoning epidemic traced to their restaurant would be bad for business. The key to avoiding this sort of disaster is to keep a careful watch on the food handlers. If you aren’t sure what food handling and preparation safety measures are used by your favorite restaurants, ask the managers. Once they know people are concerned and willing to question them, odds are they’ll put more effort into it. RH

Warrick, Joby. “Meat inspections left in foreign hands: USDA relies on international producers for quality control.” The Washington Post, 2/25/02

“Reduction of natural microflora Escherichia coli O157:H7, Salmonella typhimurium, and Listeria monocytogenes, in vacuum-packaged meat by combined treatment with lactic acid, hot water, and microwaves.” The Institute of Food Technologies Annual Meeting, Chicago, Illinois, 7/27/99