Meat processing safety
2007 has seen a near-record number of beef recalls of a record quantity of meat. Sadly, it has involved not only the marginal or small producers or the corner-cutting operations such as Topps Meat of New Jersey. Topps was a family-owned company that was purchased by investors who attempted to increase profits by minimizing safety issues, promptly shipped almost 22 million pounds of tainted hamburger that had to be recalled, and then declared bankruptcy in November of 2007. Recalls have also been made by producers such as Tyson Fresh Meats, who have been recognized as leaders in the industry, in terms of installing devices and procedures to attempt to eliminate E-coli toxins, in particular.
E-coli is present in the lower digestive system of cows (and people) and is not usually dangerous. One strain of E-coli is dangerous, however, and if an animal carcass is contaminated with fecal matter from the animal's hyde or intestines, the toxic strain of E-coli can cause illness or death. Hamburger is the most common cause of illness because the toxin from a single source can be disseminated throughout enormous batches of meat and then not destroyed by thorough heating. Meat products that are sold and prepared without being ground are more effectively de-contaminated by surface heat, even if not fully cooked.
Producers like Tyson have adopted procedures that involve cleaning the hydes of animals prior to slaughter, and then thorough steam-cleaning and acid washing of carcasses during processing. Unfortunately, the producers themselves and other food safety experts acknowledge that these procedures are not fail-safe (and this year's recalls confirm that conclusion). Irradiation of meat would kill the E-coli toxins, however, producers are wary of the impact of irradiation on taste and marketing. If meat-processing cannot be failsafe at the best of American producers, you can imagine the risk involved in purchasing meat from third-world producers with less sophisticated regulation and production.