Pathogen contamination (like salmonella and E.coli) of meat increases significantly in the industrial model. On one hand, we have the inherent risks of mass meatpacking, and, on the other, the increased pathogen load of CAFO raised livestock.

Meat production and meatpacking are big business, in every sense of the word. The sheer number of animals being processed for meat in the US is staggering. Using 2018 stats, roughly 25 million animals are processed in the US for meat daily. The trends are that:

  • Processing lines are allowed to move increasingly faster
  • Worker turnover and injury rates are increasing (but not wages)
  • 4 companies per sector are monopolizing the business
  • Meat inspectors are increasingly being privatized and pared-back—meaning fewer overall inspectors and giving meatpackers the ability to inspect themselves with less federal oversight

It’s hard to imagine the capacity and centralization of the industry. In 2018, the numbers looked like this:

Livestock Number processed in 2018 Maximum Federally Mandated Processing Rate Centralization in Processing[1]
Cattle 33 million[2]

 

390 per hour[3] 4 companies process 85% in 2015[4] (it was about 20% in the 70s)[5]
Hogs 121 million[6]

 

1,106 per hour

(Changed to no limit in 2019)[7]

4 companies process 66% in 2015
Chickens 9 billion[8] 140 per minute—175 per minute with waiver[9]

 

4 companies process 51% in 2015

 

Because a handful of meatpackers control the majority of the markets, they wield a great deal of control over farmers, over lawmakers, and over our dinner. The slaughter rate for chicken processing was recently increased and plants can now process up to $10,500 birds per hour. A recent change in the regulations for pork processing has reduced federal inspectors by about 40% and taken away any processing speed limits.[10] Beef producers are pushing for similar relaxation of federal standards. Time is money after all.

Reality is that the meatpacking industry has not been doing its due diligence in making sure that the meat they sell is free of contaminants. This came in to focus in a big way in 1993 when 73 different locations of Jack in the Box were part of a particularly virulent strain of E. coli outbreak. In the end, more than 700 people in 4 different states became ill. 171 ended up in the hospital and 4 died. Many had permanent issues like kidney failure and brain damage. The infected meat was never completely determined. The most likely culprit was ground beef that contained meat from 443 different cattle that had come from farms and auction in six states via five slaughterhouses.[11]

Before the Jack in the box disaster and ensuing scandal, USDA meat inspectors had been looking for what they could see and smell, not microscopic pathogens. E. coli strains can cause a case of diarrhea but can also cause multiple organ failure and even death. E. coli is spread through fecal matter. Meat can be exposed to it during the evisceration process or when the hide/skin is removed.  Manure can come in direct contact with meat, but even more problematic are the microscopic pathogens that become airborne and cannot be seen. Ground meat is the perfect vector for pathogens since meat from so many animals is ground together. A McDonald’s hamburger contains meat from at least a 100 cows.[12] Only one needs to have E. coli contamination.  Unless you are buying local meat form a small farmer, long gone are the days that a bad burger can be traced back to a single cow/producer.

The industry was forced to respond in the wake of the 1993 health disaster. Meatpackers took more care to prevent fecal contamination and fast-food restaurants cooked burgers longer. Many technological advances have ensued. In 1994, Congress declared E. coli an adulterant and set an acceptable level of zero. This means that at the first sign of E. coli, the product must be recalled. It does not mean, unfortunately, that all meat is tested for contamination before it leaves the processor. It’s not that testing does not occur, but there is no way all meat can be tested in the system that now exists.

In a bizarre twist of events, fast food meat is now generally safer than what you can buy in a grocery store.  Fast-food chains were able to see exactly what was at stake for their bottom line and customer brand trust in 1993 and they require meatpackers to thoroughly test their meat for high levels of salmonella and for certain strains of E. coli. Supermarket meat is not held to the same standard.[13] You know this is the case, because of the frequency of recalls due to E.coli/salmonella and other pathogens. Unfortunately, only about half of the meat that is recalled gets recovered.

The fact that we have recalls at all means we are letting pathogenic meat out the door. For a recall to occur, people are consuming contaminated food and getting sick. Think of those individuals as the final meat inspectors. Enough people have to be diagnosed in a region for health care workers to alert authorities. The USDA then begins to negotiate a recall with the processor, if one can be determined. Shockingly, the USDA cannot mandate a recall, but they are increasing. In 2015, 1 million pounds of ground beef were recalled.  In 2016 it went down to 600,000 pounds but in 2018 it jumped to 13 million pounds.[14] Here’s why:

  • Massive, centralized processing facilities working increasingly faster
  • Meat quickly distributed over broad regions
  • Unskilled and unstable workforce
  • Fewer inspectors and smaller budgets

Salmonella is the most common food pathogen and has not been declared an adulterant.  It is perfectly legal to sell animal products with high levels of salmonella. The USDA cannot demand a recall due to salmonella until it has caused foodborne illness. Salmonella causes the majority of food sickness—striking about a million Americans and killing about 400 of them annually. About 18% of chicken and 15% of turkey is contaminated with salmonella.[15]  [16]

The meatpacking industry used to have a dependable, highly-skilled and well-paid workforce. It’s an industry that has gone from some of the lowest employee turnover in the 1970s to now some of the highest. Turnover rates of 75-100% are not uncommon at meatpackers. Wages have been cut, unions have been broken, and injury rates have skyrocketed—all while processing speeds have continually increased. All of this means a very poorly skilled, often non-English speaking, workforce with lots of room for error. Another cost of cheap meat.

CAFO raised livestock enter a slaughterhouse with higher levels of pathogens due to their diets and they are the perfect petri dish for evolution of lethal pathogens. When cattle are raised on grains and other by-products, the rumen of the animal becomes very acidic, unnaturally so, and it becomes a breeding ground for acid-resistant pathogens like the dreaded E. coli 0157 h7 (cause of the Jack in the Box disaster). Normally, our acidic stomachs would be able to kill off these pathogens naturally because our stomach acid is naturally much higher than a grass-fed cow’s. When you add in routine antibiotics in livestock production and mass meat processing, you have the perfect storm for the evolution and dissemination of deadly pathogens. The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences has warned that “pathogens tend to be amplified in animals raised in CAFOs and, thus, are more difficult to eliminate in meatpacking processes.”[17]

Once thought to be immune, E. coli 0157 h7 has been found in grass-fed cows as well.  The overall incidence of E. coli is reduced, but super pathogens that are bred in CAFOs are a threat to those of us eating outside the CAFO system.

Campylobacter and salmonella are routinely found on chicken—whether its mass-produced and processed or pastured poultry processed in small batches. Pathogens like these are the reason we are told to be so careful with the cooking temperature and handling of poultry in the kitchen.

What’s the solution? Best practice is to know your farmer and skip CAFO raised and mass-processed meat.  Anytime you can reduce the chain of custody between you and your food, you are much better off.

[1] Kelloway, Claire, and Sarah Miller. Food and Power: Addressing Monopolization in America’s Food System. Open Markets Institute, Mar. 2019.

[2] USDA. Livestock Slaughter 2018 Summary. USDA, Apr. 2019.

[3] Rakestraw, Darcey. “Confirmed: USDA Now Pursuing Privatized Beef Inspections.” Food & Water Watch, 10 June 2019, www.foodandwaterwatch.org/news/confirmed-usda-now-pursuing-privatized-beef-inspections. Accessed 6 Jan. 2020.

[4] Ostlind, Emilene. “The Big Four Meatpackers.” High Country News, 11 Mar. 2011, www.hcn.org/issues/43.5/cattlemen-struggle-against-giant-meatpackers-and-economic-squeezes/the-big-four-meatpackers-1. Accessed 31 Dec. 2019.

[5] Schlosser, Eric. “Interviews – Eric Schlosser | Modern Meat | FRONTLINE | PBS.” Pbs.Org, 2014, www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/meat/interviews/schlosser.html. Accessed 9 Jan. 2020.

[6] USDA. Livestock Slaughter 2018 Summary. USDA, Apr. 2019.

[7] Polansek, Tom. “U.S. Worker, Food-Safety Advocates Sound Alarm over New Hog Slaughter Rules.” Reuters, 17 Sept. 2019, www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-pork-slaughter/u-s-worker-food-safety-advocates-sound-alarm-over-new-hog-slaughter-rules-idUSKBN1W22IV. Accessed 6 Jan. 2020.

[8] National Chicken Council. “Broiler Chicken Industry Key Facts 2019.” The National Chicken Council, 2020, www.nationalchickencouncil.org/about-the-industry/statistics/broiler-chicken-industry-key-facts/. Accessed 6 Jan. 2020.

[9] Bernot, Kate. “New USDA Rule Will Boost Already Mind-Boggling Number of Chickens Slaughtered Each Day.” The Takeout, 16 Oct. 2018, thetakeout.com/usda-rule-increase-number-chickens-slaughtered-daily-1829787095. Accessed 6 Jan. 2020.

[10] Creswell, Julie. “How Many Hogs Can Be Slaughtered per Hour? Pork Industry Wants More.” The New York Times, 9 Aug. 2019, www.nytimes.com/2019/08/09/business/pork-factory-regulations.html. Accessed 8 Jan. 2020.

[11] Drexler, Madeline. “Is Your Meat Safe? – Secret Agent 0157 – The Evolution Of A Killer | Modern Meat | FRONTLINE | PBS.” Pbs.org, 2014. https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/meat/safe/o157.html.

[12] Ferdman, Roberto. “I Tried to Figure out How Many Cows Are in a Single Hamburger. It Was Really Hard.” The Washington Post, 5 Aug. 2015, www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2015/08/05/there-are-a-lot-more-cows-in-a-single-hamburger-than-you-realize/. Accessed 9 Jan. 2020.

[13] Schlosser, Eric. “Interviews – Eric Schlosser | Modern Meat | FRONTLINE | PBS.” Pbs.Org, 2014, www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/meat/interviews/schlosser.html. Accessed 9 Jan. 2020.

[14] Ziemski, Emily. “Beef Recalls Are at an All-Time High. Is It the Meat or Is It Us?” HuffPost Canada. HuffPost Canada, November 13, 2019. https://www.huffpost.com/entry/ground-beef-recalls-food-poisoning_l_5dc980e6e4b00927b2371a9a.

[15] Marshall, Madeline. “How Salmonella-Tainted Food Gets into Your Fridge.” Vox, Vox, 10 Jan. 2019, www.vox.com/2019/1/10/18175941/salmonella-food-usda. Accessed 9 Jan. 2020.

[16] Schlosser, Eric. “Interviews – Eric Schlosser | Modern Meat | FRONTLINE | PBS.” Pbs.Org, 2014, www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/meat/interviews/schlosser.html. Accessed 9 Jan. 2020.

[17] Gilchrist, Mary J., Christina Greko, David B. Wallinga, George W. Beran, David G. Riley, and Peter S. Thorne. “The Potential Role of Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations in Infectious Disease Epidemics and Antibiotic Resistance.” Environmental Health Perspectives 115, no. 2 (February 2007): 313–16. https://doi.org/10.1289/ehp.8837.