The Douglass Report May 2008

May 2008 PDF

Dear Friend,

If you've ever had food poisoning, I'm sure you're not eager to repeat the experience. Still, 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 them as safe as possible from contaminated foods. But now, after we experienced the largest beef recall ever back in February, it's time to start singing a different tune.

As you may recall, a hefty amount of beef (143 million pounds to be exact) was recalled after it came to light that downer cattle were being processed and sold to consumers. (Downer cattle are those animals considered too ill to walk.)

Since then, I've received an influx of letters from concerned readers--readers dedicated to eating their meat--about what's safe to eat and what's not.

First of all, let me give you a clue. If you're thinking about giving up meat and turning vegetarian because you think it's a safer option don't. Remember last year's E.coli spinach disaster? No, the problem isn't meat. And the truth is, if you decide to go without meat, the likelihood of making yourself sick from a lack of protein and animal fat is far greater than your risk of getting sick from contaminated food.

The real problem here is the Big Cattle operations. I've told you this before, so I wasn't the least bit surprised when the latest bit of news came to light. The shocking thing is that we don't hear about it more often. Those cattle prison farms are prime places for diseases to spread like, well diseases. As much as I hate to say it, it doesn't matter whether the meat is coming from the U.S. or from some other country it's just a matter of time.

Did you know that this country imports some of its meat from Mexico? Check out what happened at a Mexican meatpacking plant just a few years ago.

Flies, feces, and disease: a recipe for a Mexican meatpacking 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 meatpacking plants exporting products to the United States. What they found shocked them: flies, diseased carcasses, and meat contaminated by feces--all marked for distribution. And this wasn't an isolated incident. Roughly 50 percent of the plants that the inspectors visited failed to meet the minimum sanitation standards.

Following that 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.

It's true that this happened nearly 10 years ago, but based on the recent events in our own country, do you really think much has changed over the years? The USDA is just as understaffed and incapable of ensuring food safety NOW as it was back then. In fact, it freely admits that it's short about 500 inspectors. And what's even more frightening is the blind bureaucratic faith that this government agency says it places in paperwork reviews as a valuable safeguard.

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

Meatpacking 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 any labeling to indicate the products' origin(s). The grim reality is that not all countries measure up to U.S. food sanitation standards (lax as they may be), yet the USDA is still allowing foods to be imported from places proven to have substandard conditions.

It's true that by the time most meat reaches the supermarket, it has undergone some sort of sterilization process. But whether it's irridation, pasteurization, or hydrogenization, all of these food sanitation techniques fall short in one way or another.

In the end, it's up to you to take the necessary steps to ensure that the food you eat is safe--the government will not do it for you. Most people don't realize 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.

Here's what to do

1. If you live close to rural areas, see if you can find a farmer who sells grass-fed beef. If you're more of a city-dweller, there are a few companies in the U.S. that raise organic, grass-fed beef and will ship their products across country. Here are a few to start with:

2. 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. Instead, buy whole cuts of meat. Once you get them home, store them in the freezer for 24 hours. That will kill any parasites.

3. After storing the meat in the freezer, let it soak in a 3 percent hydrogen peroxide solution (the kind available in any supermarket) for five minutes and then dry it with a towel. This is the simplest way to kill germs on meat.

4. Slice or grind the meat yourself, and eat it within an hour of preparation.

5. Don't overcook your meat. I suggest eating meat in its most nutritious form--raw, rare, or medium rare.

6. 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. Their owners 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 ensuring their patrons' safety.

7. Take action against the sale of meat from downed animals by supporting the Downed Animal and Food Safety Protection Act (HR 661 and S394). Go to my website, to find out how.