Mystery Meat

If you want to learn the truth about almost any aspect of commercial life, never mind general-interest journals like the one you're holding. For the real dirt, you have to read "the trades." Every trade from acupuncture to zymology has its dedicated journal, where, away from public notice, adepts can communicate candidly among themselves. Want to go behind the scenes of the funeral game? Subscribe to Today in Deathcare. (I'm not making this up.) Looking for the latest on "issues related to the rendering industry, recyclers of animal by-products into usable products such as tallow and protein meals"? Look no further than the bi-monthly Render—though one issue may make an overnight vegetarian of you.

After a column some months ago on a Frontline documentary about the American beef industry, I received a polite note of protest from the editor of the weekly newsletter of the National Meat Association, Lean Trimmings. I've been a devoted reader of LT (and its law-and-public-policy counterpart, Herd on the Hill) ever since.

These are stirring times for the National Meat Association (NMA), made up primarily of folks in the slaughtering and processing business. On the bright side, there's an oversupply of animals of the hoof, so the ever-smaller number of ever-larger corporate meat handlers can pretty much write their own prices to the rancher. On the dark side, one big reason for the oversupply is that Americans aren't eating as much beef (and lamb) as they used to.

Hardly surprising, considering the kind of media coverage the industry's been getting of late: Foot-and-mouth disease in Britain and Europe, the first human case of meat-transmitted brain-destroying BSE (bovine spongiform encephalopathy, also known as mad-cow disease) in North America, another devastating TV report (on Dateline NBC) on supermarkets relabeling meat past its sell-by date. The climax came in mid-July, when the belated discovery of bacterial contamination in just five containers led to the grudging recall of 20 million pounds of beef trimmings by the meatpacking giant ConAgra.

Herd on the Hill's coverage of this last catastrophe was both characteristic and instructive. "From a microbiological testing perspective," wrote the editors, "a single 375-gram sample of 4,540,000 grams (10,000 pounds) of product has no statistical validity. The fact that 75 grams is taken from each of five combos . . . does not make it statistically sound. The real fact is that because of the nature of trimmings, it would take several hundred samples from any one 2,000-pound combo to achieve a statistical confidence level."

Really? So in other words, the kind of testing now prescribed by U.S. law is inadequate by at least two orders of magnitude to ensure that bacterial contamination will be detected? And this is supposed to make me feel sorry for meat packers? It wasn't the meat-consuming public that demanded the beef they eat be processed and shipped by the 1-ton tub containing scraps of meat from hundreds of different cows, so that a single E. coli-laced bovine can put 10,000 oblivious burger-eaters at risk.

But the NMA isn't always on the defensive. Apart from inveighing against the unfairness to the industry of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's (ludicrously inadequate) attempts to protect the nation's food supply, Lean Trimmings has some positive proposals. Just last week, it carried a guest editorial demanding immediate action to protect the American consumer from contaminated ground beef—by subjecting said mass-produced, multisourced, anonymous product to "electronic pasteurization."

Electronic pasteurization is the latest term for a process that used to be called "irradiation" until it was discovered the public didn't like the sound of that; you'll also find it referred to as "cold pasteurization," which has an even more reassuring ring. Whatever it's called, it amounts to zapping meat with either microwave radiation or a scanning electron beam like the one that paints the picture on a TV screen. And it works: Though the beam method only penetrates the top millimeter or so of the meat, that's where the microorganisms mostly lurk.

If you want to kill every last microbe in a slab of hamburger, the only way to do it is to cook it thoroughly, to an internal temperature of 160 degrees Fahrenheit. But consumers, that feckless lot, can't be depended on to cremate their burgers sufficiently for safety, so from the industry standpoint, irradiation is the next best thing, though it's likely to raise the price of ground round from 10 to 30 cents a pound.

Unmentioned in all the clarion calls for immediate irradiation of meat to protect the buying public is another advantage the process gives the NMA and its food- industry allies. Irradiation is effective only if the irradiated product is immediately slipped into hermetically sealed packaging to prevent possible further contamination. In the bright future foreseen by the meat oligarchy, consumers will be able to pick up their 1-, 2-, or 3-pound ready-to-slice loaf of exactly calibrated 20 percent fat-content homogenized cow protein and not worry about how long ago it was extruded, or where. I, for one, am already feeling a whole lot better.

Roger Downey's science column appears every other week.

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