Unhappy Meals: Let the Eater Beware

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The words of this slaughterhouse employee are as terrifying today as they were in 1992. That’s when Mother Jones exposed the shipshod way meat is inspected for safety in the U.S. (“Unhappy Meals,” July/August 1992).

The Clinton administration proposes to replace the current antiquated methods of inspection with advanced scientific processes. These new microbiological processes would do a better job finding deadly bacteria, such as salmonella and E. Coli. But some members of Congress are trying to block the long overdue reform.

“If beef is such a safe food, why have diseases associated with meat and poultry been steadily on the rise for the past two decades?” writes author Liane Clorfene-Casten. “Why have meat-packers and government regulators failed until now to test meat for microbiological contamination — the kind most dangerous to human health?”

More that nine thousand Americans die and nine million get sick from eating tainted food each year, and an estimated one-third of all food poisoning comes from eating poultry and red meat, according to the national Centers for Disease Control and the FDA.

Let’s trace a burger from McDonald’s back to ConAgra’s Monfort slaughterhouse in Nebraska:
“The procedures are crude, and often hair remains on the skinned head and horns,” says one Monfort employee. “Ingesta backs up [from the windpipe] and spills out all over the head. The head and carcass are then washed in high-pressure water, eliminating visible dirt but embedding bacteria deeply into the tissue.”

During the gutting of the cattle, “one of the guys on the line makes a hole in the anus and pulls out the guts,” says another employee. “If the guts are not tied, the stool comes out first. Anything that touches it becomes inedible immediately. We’ve seen feces on the table, but the line is going so fast that the meat goes right through to ‘edible.’ Stuff coming out of the esophogus gets on the roof of the mouth — and that get’s ground up into soup meat.”

Paul Clayton, vice president for quality assurance of Monfort’s slaughterhouse says, “Our beef is very safe.”

Others are not so sure. In 1992 a USDA official had this to say: “We’re allowing dirty heads to get through due to an inspection mode which by design allows this….A quarter of the approved heads are contaminated.”

(The above excerpts appeared in the July/August 1992 issue of Mother Jones. To receive a copy of that issue, or any back issue, write to:

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We've never been very good at being conservative.

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This is no time to come up short. It's time to fight like hell, as our namesake would tell us to do, for a democracy where minority rule cannot impose an extreme agenda, where facts matter, and where accountability has a chance at the polls and in the press. If you value our reporting and you can right now, please help us dig out of the $100,000 hole we're starting our new budgeting cycle in with an always-needed and always-appreciated donation today.

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