What “pink slime” tells us about industrial food safety

at 02:21 PM ET, 04/09/2012


(Tomas Bravo - Reuters)
Mark Bittman has a great post on the controversy over “pink slime” — those fatty cow trimmings that get disinfected with ammonia and mixed in with ground beef. He notes that whether pink slime is safe or not, it’s a symptom of broader health concerns around industrial meat production:

Remember why [pink slime] was originally created — to eliminate bacteria found in ground meat … E. coli, found in the digestive tracts of cattle, is common on factory farms where cattle are fed only grain. (Their stomachs are meant to digest grass.) The incomprehensible quantity of manure produced by these cattle — also often containing E. coli — is deposited on the land, sometimes seeping into the water supply; that’s how you wind up with E. coli in vegetables. To make matters worse, “healthy” farm animals are routinely fed so many antibiotics that E. coli, salmonella and other pathogens are developing resistance to commonly prescribed drugs.

Spraying beef trimmings with ammonia gas was an ingenious way to suppress this E. coli outburst. But phasing out pink slime won’t get rid of the underlying bacterial factories. So what will? Bittman mentions one possibility: In March, a federal court ordered the Food and Drug Administration to make a decision on whether the long-standing practice of feeding antibiotics to healthy livestock poses a threat to human health. If the FDA does decide that it poses a threat, then it has to put a stop to the practice.

That would represent a significant change for how meat is produced. As Barry Estabrook has reported at length, the number of antibiotics given to livestock has soared over the past 35 years. Most of the drugs aren’t actually given to treat illness, but to promote livestock growth and to stave off the inevitable infections that arise from cramming animals so close together. Trouble is, ever since the 1970s, scientists have suspected that this practice is helping to breed new strains of antibiotic-resistant “superbugs” inside factory farms. (Every year, about 70,000 Americans die from bacterial infections that are resistant to drugs — although it’s not clear how many of those are linked to livestock.)

So will the FDA put an end to the antibiotic party? Bittman, for one, is dubious that the agency will actually take such a drastic step. But that decision could prove far more significant for the future of factory farming than the ongoing frenzy over pink slime.

Related: Here’s an earlier post on whether a ban on “lean, finely textured beef” would be bad for greenhouse-gas emissions — if it meant that more cows would need to be raised and slaughtered as a result. A lot of readers took that post as a defense of pink slime, though it was more a way of illustrating how meat-consumption habits contribute to climate change.

 
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