Beef Processing Illustrates State of Food System

CowsBy Rhonda Gruska

My previous two columns discuss some of the issues surrounding large scale food distribution to restaurants and food service operators, such as freshness, nutrition, truth in advertising, food safety, etc. This mainstream model of distribution trending toward monopoly, with Sysco controlling 27% of the market and the next closest competitor at 4%, lends itself to similar concerns about food production.

Let’s use beef processing to illustrate how damaged our food system has become. Meat production has become more and more concentrated due to mergers of corporate packers producing the majority of the meat we eat. As a matter of fact, four meat packing companies slaughter and process more than 80% of cattle in the U. S.

In contrast, small scale meatpacking facilities face major challenges with recent changes in federal laws that govern food safety designed for much larger operations. They argue that they are “cumbersome, costly, and sometimes impractical for their size.” Just ask local rancher Fred Manas how difficult it was to navigate the complexity of USDA regulations for his cut and wrap operation in Esparto. And the animals are already slaughtered when they arrive at his facility.

There’s no argument that food safety laws aren’t important. However, it’s interesting to note in a day and age where corporations are people too, current legislation is negatively impacting small operations, yet clearly failing to properly and adequately protect food safety in the large ones. Additionally, according to the USDA, “Recalls are voluntary actions carried out by industry in cooperation with Federal and State agencies.” The New York Times explains this policy further saying, “Technically the Department of Agriculture does not have the authority to recall meat. It can only withdraw its inspectors from a plant, putting pressure on a company to issue a recall.”

One excellent source of information to track recalls is Food Safety News, based in Seattle, WA. Similar to the Davis Vanguard, it publishes daily and is augmented by articles and opinion pieces, helping to “fill a void of dedicated journalism about food, health and safety issues…”

A site search for beef recalls in 2013 results in “about 9,240 results,” with recalls based upon multiple E. coli strains, Listeria, Mad Cow, Salmonella, and foreign objects, such as metal and plastic.” The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that “animal products are the most common sources of foodborne illness,” and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has joined the USDA in saying, “Vegetarian-style eating patterns have been associated with improved health outcomes.” While organic produce is the star at Monticello, this statement seems like a great way for the government to pass the buck. “Just eat more fruits and vegetables, and you won’t get sick as often.” And when it comes to meat, we will continue to allow the fox to guard the hen house.

Of course, we’re currently dealing with the ever expanding recall of stone fruit from Trader Joe’s, Costco, Sam’s Club, Wegmans, Food 4 Less, Food Co., and Ralphs because it may be contaminated with Listeria. Based on the size of the grocers involved, you can bet that fruit came from some pretty large agricultural operations, but that’s a discussion for my next article.

It should come as no surprise to hear, we’re convinced the “economy of scale” model is not healthful or appealing when it comes to food. And unfortunately we can’t count on Dr. Elisabeth Hagen, the USDA Undersecretary for Food Safety and Inspection Service to understand where we’re coming from. Particularly when she’s, “Setting the Record Straight on Beef” regarding large beef producers revolutionary product, “lean finely textured beef (LFTB)” a processed meat product made from chunks of beef, including trimmings, treated with ammonium hydroxide to kill E. coli and other dangerous contaminants, most recently dubbed “pink slime.”

Hagan’s response to the media and public outcry on the USDA blog is: “I believe it is important to distinguish people’s concerns about how their food is made from their concerns about food safety. The process used to produce LFTB is safe and has been used for a very long time. And adding LFTB to ground beef does not make that ground beef any less safe to consume.”

She then goes on to tell us: “We are lucky to live in a country with strong food safety standards. I certainly understand that there are processes and methods in food production that may be troublesome to some, regardless of their impacts on food safety. Choosing what food to serve at your kitchen table is a very personal decision, and thankfully we have many choices at the grocery store that fit a variety of budgets. We hope that we can continue to engage with the American consumer on the steps USDA takes every day to make sure the meat they buy is safe to eat.”

Just like the Co-op, she’s making sure we know the USDA is not the “food police.” It wouldn’t have been much more of a stretch for her to follow up by telling those of us with concerns about LFTB that we might be interested in trying Cargill’s innovative, “finely textured beef (FTB)” which uses a “natural” preservative, citric acid, to kill potential pathogens.

Cargill has produced this “higher-volume, less fatty ground beef product” since 1993. The Food Safety News reports that from that same year until 2011, “Cargill has been the source of contaminated meat implicated in at least 10 major outbreaks, 10 deaths, three stillbirths and 347 illnesses and sells food and agriculture products around the globe.” By now the numbers have surely increased, right along with their 2013 fiscal year $136.7 billion in sales and other revenues.

In addition to foodborne illness and just plain gross “food” in general, we should be concerned about the way animals in large operations are treated. Perhaps the horror story that made national and international headlines in 2012 of the beef processing plant in Hanford, CA, which is a major supplier to the National School Lunch Program and other federal food institutions, should be required reading in every K-12 classroom. The USDA was quoted as saying the undercover film footage of cattle lying in pens unable to move, cows with swollen udders that were unable to keep their legs under them, and a downed cow trembling and unable to stand as workers pull her up by the tail displayed “egregious inhumane handling and treatment of livestock.”

From a food safety perspective, livestock that can’t walk are banned for use in the food supply because they pose an added risk of mad cow disease, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy, a fatal disease that eats away at the brain. Regardless of the animal abuse and/or food safety concerns, the facility was only shut down temporarily. Within the month, the operation was running again and shortly after that, the federal nutrition program resumed purchases. The following year, the processor once again recalled 90,000 pounds of ground beef headed to school cafeterias, over concerns that it contained pieces of plastic.

Four years prior to this publically disclosed incident, the Humane Society released a video of livestock too sick and weak to stand up that was forced into the knock box and slaughtered for human consumption at another CA beef processing plant.

The documentation led to the USDA declaring the meat “unfit for human food” and resulted in the largest meat recall in U.S. history. However, 50 million pounds had already been distributed to our schools. And when there is a recall, you will be comforted to know that analysis shows that recovery rates only average about 20% to 30%, meaning the rest of the meat is eaten before or after the recall is made public.

Our opinion is that increasingly large recalls of beef, learning that we have eaten or fed our children “pink slime,” along with vignettes of livestock abuse that are intermittently exposed when someone is brave enough to sneak a camera into a large processing plant are clear symptoms of a broken food system in which animals are reduced to being mere commodities where the primary concern is profit.

Our continued support of the industrial food complex is assisting large corporations to dismantle the reforms implemented under the Federal Meat Inspection Act of 1906 (FMIA). And as this legislation was implemented partially in response to publication of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, it’s fitting to close with an excerpt:

Then one Sunday evening, Jurgis sat puffing his pipe by the kitchen stove, and talking with an old fellow whom Jonas had introduced, and who worked in the canning-rooms at Durham’s; and so Jurgis learned a few things about the great and only Durham canned goods, which had become a national institution.

They were regular alchemists at Durham’s; they advertised a mushroom-catsup, and the men who made it did not know what a mushroom looked like. They advertised “potted chicken,”—and it was like the boarding-house soup of the comic papers, through which a chicken had walked with rubbers on. Perhaps they had a secret process for making chickens chemically—who knows? said Jurgis’s friend; the things that went into the mixture were tripe, and the fat of pork, and beef suet, and hearts of beef, and finally the waste ends of veal, when they had any.

They put these up in several grades, and sold them at several prices; but the contents of the cans all came out of the same hopper. And then there was “potted game” and “potted grouse,” “potted ham,“ and ”devilled ham“—de-vyled, as the men called it. ”De-vyled“ ham was made out of the waste ends of smoked beef that were too small to be sliced by the machines; and also tripe, dyed with chemicals so that it would not show white; and trimmings of hams and corned beef; and potatoes, skins and all; and finally the hard cartilaginous gullets of beef, after the tongues had been cut out.

All this ingenious mixture was ground up and flavored with spices to make it taste like something. Anybody who could invent a new imitation had been sure of a fortune from old Durham, said Jurgis’s informant; but it was hard to think of anything new in a place where so many sharp wits had been at work for so long; where men welcomed tuberculosis in the cattle they were feeding, because it made them fatten more quickly; and where they bought up all the old rancid butter left over in the grocery-stores of a continent, and ”oxidized” it by a forced-air process, to take away the odor, rechurned it with skim-milk, and sold it in bricks in the cities!

Source: Upton Sinclair, The Jungle (1905), Chapter Nine.

About The Author

Disclaimer: the views expressed by guest writers are strictly those of the author and may not reflect the views of the Vanguard, its editor, or its editorial board.

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  1. DavisBurns

    Just as we concentrate wealth in the hands of fewer and fewer people, we allow large businesses to consume smaller ones and mergers that result in concentrated power that has profit as it’s sole objective. We under regulate the major players and over regulated the small players, maximizing the profit for the former. It’s a crazy way to do business, same as it’s a crazy way to run a country and most importantly it isn’t sustainable. The people who want to feed the world forget the basic premise that we have expanded our population beyond the ability of the planet to support the number we already have. The Green Revolution simply used fossil fuels to artificially expand food production, increasing exports of food with the unintended consequence of undermining native food production leaving people more dependent on imports. Currently, we are seeing a DECREASE in world food production and it isn’t likely to rise again. All the talk about UCD’s plans to build a world food center uses our public funds to support research for the benefit of mono crop mega farms. We should be putting that public money into regional sustainable farming allowing us to diversify the sources of our food. This is one of the reasons I am not inclined to support an “innovation park” in Davis. We will spend public dollars to expand private profit that is the result of private money invested in public institutions to fund research for the benefit of private sector. In the long run the rich get richer and the government is no longer in the public interest but at the mercy of private interests.

    This may not be where Rhonda wants this discussion to go but it is this political/economic system that has allowed this food production model to dominate.

  2. DavisBurns

    I ate food from Sam’s Mediterranean Cusine yesterday. It’s family owned and operated and they only take cash–my kind of small business–but I’m pretty sure that beef I ate was ‘pink slime’ after having it described. I knew it was some kind of press strips of meat. Shoulda ordered chicken or even vegetarian.

  3. Rich RifkinWDE 73

    The meat world I knew as a child largely no longer exists … and for most it did not exist back in the 1960s and ’70s*. Our neighbors in Davis were sheep ranchers. On the father’s side, they were 3rd generation ranchers in the Elmira area. (Mostly they raised sheep for wool. But they also sold lambs for slaughter.) Another member of their family (on the wife’s side) owned a cattle ranch near Dixon.

    When my parents wanted meat, my mom would place an order with our neighbor for “a half a side of beef.” The meat came from that Dixon ranch, and some other family member of theirs in Dixon did the butchering and packaging. The meat was as fresh as possible. However, we stuck all of it in our big freezer in our garage, and it would take many months to eat it all. One interesting thing about buying a half a side is that in addition to all of the good steak and roast cuts, we also got the odd pieces, like tongue. (I don’t think we got offal.) Another thing was my mom had to use a meat grinder to make ground beef, mixing in the amount of fat and the cuts of beef she wanted. (We also, separately, used to buy blood meal from them as a soil fertilizer.)

    I think the world of little, local meat companies was killed by supermarkets, as they scaled up and up and became far more convenient for most shoppers. Back in the day, supermarkets did not carry everything. We used to get our milk, ice cream, yogurt, etc. from the local Crystal Dairy (located by the SP Depot on G Street) delivered to our house. But in the 1970s, everyone could make their food shopping a one-stop experience at a Safeway or State Market or Lucky’s. That pretty much ran the specialty markets out of business. Yet it would not surprise me, as Americans get richer, or at least some Americans get richer, that towns like Davis again have specialty meat markets and fish markets for high end products. Supermarkets try to compete on price and meet the demand in the middle. Rich folks care a lot more about quality, and often local, organic, grass fed, etc. meets their needs.

    *Davis used to have a fairly large business on G Street called Stan’s Meat Market. I recall Stan had big, freshly slaughtered beef carcasses (and probably pig carcasses, too, but I don’t remember those) hanging on hooks. Customers at markets like that would come in, place a specific order for whatever cuts of meat they wanted, and the butcher (presumably Stan) would cut just what they wanted for them. I am sure that the meat Stan’s sold was sourced locally.

    Before Stan’s, I’m sure there were others. I know that the mayor of Davis, Calvin Covell, in his time, operated a meat market on G Street. He also owned a cattle ranch and grain farm on the land which abuts the north side of his eponymous boulevard, starting about Hwy 113 and going east from there. I actually don’t know how far east the Covell Ranch went. But I would guess about a mile.

    1. Rich RifkinWDE 73

      If you are interested to see what Stan’s Meat Market looked like, I found a picture of it from the 1960s. It’s a shot taken of the block on the west side of G Street from 2nd to 3rd. The picture is on page 45 of a large 1976 City of Davis document, itself quite interesting, called “Planning for Energy Conservation Draft Report” by David Bainbridge.

      Again, the photo of G Street is on page 45 of 83. There are a few other interesting Davis pics in there.

  4. TrueBlueDevil

    Interesting article, but is this author open minded?

    The USDA budget is around $150B a year. Where does that go? According to them, 3,000 people a year die from food borne illnesses. It looks like the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) only has a $1B a year budget. (Page 57)

    I’d also be interested in Ms. Gruska’s take on how we test food workers in California. This past year I was in a coffee shop / Internet cafe in a Latino neighborhood where one food worker instructed another food worker how to answer questions for an online food safety test (in Spanish). I was ignorant of such tests, and unware that tests / teaching were administered online.

  5. Tia Will


    Your post really brought back memories. Our meat and fish was primarily provided by my dad in the form of venison, pheasant and quail, occasionally supplemented by locally grown beef which we bought from the local butcher and my other ground for hamburger.

    What we are seeing, not only in this country but around the world is the increasing abandonment of local farms and ranches, the movement of people from the country to the city, for the convenience and jobs, which unfortunately is often to the detriment not only of our living conditions ( the favelas as opposed to the country side for example) but also for the health of all.

  6. Frankly

    Key here is that government policy again harms small operators and benefits larger operators.

    Come see me about banking.

    Talk to other business owners that work in markets dominated by mega large competitors.

    Government has basically no business sense… no understanding of cause and effect of policy and regulation on the overall health of the economy. Just try to start a ranch or dairy in this state… the regulatory burden puts it out of reach for any young family… certainly any that lack outright ownership of the land.

    Regulatory reform is needed in most industries to help the small operator open and thrive. Just try to get that concept through to your local obsessed environmentalist.

    1. Rich RifkinWDE 73

      One very important thing to keep in mind about most of these regulations: They are written ON BEHALF OF COMPANIES OR INDUSTRIES which pour money into politics. It’s yet another byproduct of our highly corrupt campaign finance system, where private interests fund elections for private benefit. Until we outlaw private donations to politicians for campaigns, this will go on. It’s the same story we see here in California with public employees, who run our politicians with money.

      1. Frankly

        There are two forces at work here… one is as you say… money to lobbyists and to politicians to write big business favoring laws and regulations. But many small businesses belong to associations that can and do the the same things. But in general, the big business wins because they can more easily absorb the cost of these regulations.

        The other force is the social and environmental do-gooder and the government bureaucrats that write the code that goes into the federal register. This is where the law of unintended consequences kicks in. And then to counter that, more code goes into the federal register which then causes additional unintended consequences. And one of the most prevalent unintended consequences is the negative economic impacts from the high cost of regulatory compliance from all the code.

        Have you ever heard a politician or bureaucrat announce that we are going to reduce the size of the federal register? That is what needs to happen.

        And the trial attorneys will not like it either because the complexity of the regulatory environment provides them money-making opportunities defending and prosecuting those law-breakers.

        1. Rich RifkinWDE 73

          “And the trial attorneys will not like it either because the complexity of the regulatory environment provides them money-making opportunities defending and prosecuting those law-breakers.”

          Agreed. Again, what happens is lawmakers take money from the trial lawyers industry association and write public laws to benefit that private interest. That is the usual outcome when you have privately financed political campaigns.

          Because some industries are more associated with one party or the other, you will get opposing types of regulations*. But in either case, the regulations are largely there to benefit or protect some company or trade group or lawyer lobby, etc., which paid a lot of money to members of Congress or some other legislative group.

          *Most industries are bipartisan. That is, they pay off the key people in the Democratic Party and those in the Republican Party and get laws written that satisfy them. In the not too distant past, there were industries which were split in the parties by regional interests. Coal is a good example. It was almost entirely a Democratic industry. But at the same time the environmental lobby, which is largely lawyers who make a living suing businesses, is also Democratic and usually gets what it wants from its party. However, this has changed in the last 10-15 years. Coal is now almost entirely a Republican industry. In states like West Virginia and Kentucky, it is now almost impossible for a Democrat to win, and that is the result of a stronger push in the Democratic Party to control the effluence of coal (which, I might add, I favor). That push–and the consequences of fracking which has made natural gas cheaper and thus able to compete with coal on price–has made coal a Republican industry, and I would imagine that Big Coal is now pouring a lot of money into Republican coffers.

          1. Frankly

            Large private organizations got into the rage of process reengineering in the 80s and 90s. Then in the 2000s that morphed into constant improvement processes like TQM and Six Sigma. The basic driver was the understanding of the growth-stifling effect of bureaucratic bloat. The reengineering approach was to deconstruct and rebuild business processes so that they were efficient. Then they would be corrupted over time by the human tendency to create bureaucratic bloat, and then reengineered again. Next someone had the idea of continuous improvement so that the business did not have to suffer the impacts of bureaucratic bloat and the cost of reengineering.

            We have nothing like this in our government regulatory environment. Bureaucratic bloat is constant. We layer and layer on more and more rules and regulations. The solution to every problem is another regulation. This misses the benefit of the invisible hand of creative destruction and reformation.

            The time is ripe to change the approach in government to the best practice in private business. We should be implementing a constant improvement methodology and constantly evaluating agencies, programs and regulations that we can eliminate or simplify so that government, and the businesses that government regulates, can more effectively and efficiently start, grow, fail and be replaced. This movement would help the small operator. And by helping the small operator we help grow the economy and get more people working.

            With so many hands in the government cookie jar, it is impossible to develop the political will to get this done. We know this. And it is why the call is simply to shrink the size and scope of government.

  7. Offering Balance

    If 3000 people die each year from food born illness that is one in every 104,633 people, or you have a .000009% chance of dying from a food born illness. 8 times more people die every year from falling. T

    The numbers do not account for failure of people to properly prepare or store food. A study done by the Vermont Health Department said 85% of food born illness could be avoided with proper food storage. That takes the statistically insignificant 3,000 deaths per year to 450. That lowers your chance of dying from food to .000001%, unless you choke.

    If you properly prepare and handle your food you are more likely to drown that to die of food poisoning.

    I thought food safety was a big problem and then I looked at the numbers. According to the PMC,, the US is one of the safest around. All in all the food industry does a pretty good job when you consider it feeds over 313,900,000 people a year.

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