This week began with Whole Foods and Fred Meyer stores recalling beef from a Nebraska meat processor due to concerns of e-coli infection. This is the second beef recall to be issued by Fred Meyer this year, the first for Whole Foods. You can find recall information here and here. Fred Meyer has been associated with the offending plant before, but Whole Foods? Turns out that a producer who had been selling to Whole Foods used the Nebraska plant to process his cows. It's not entirely surprising, considering products that come through Whole Foods are often from large industrial farms that operate inside decidedly loose "organic" guidelines. At least according to Michael Pollan in Omnivore's Dilemma. So, I wonder, at what point do we start questioning the safety of our industrial food system?
Woo Hoo! Soapbox time!
Industrial beef = cheap beef. Hey, economically, things are tough all over. Cheap beef looks really appealing when you're trying to lower food costs. I feel ya. But Freddy's beef is more expensive than you might think.
Let's talk about that cost. After reading Michael Pollan's book, one of his arguments really resonated with me. When you take everything into consideration, a pound of grass raised beef, produced on a small family farm, is actually more cost effective than that from an industrial factory farm. For one thing, it doesn't require the gallons of petroleum normally used to grow corn based feed. At the same time, you alleviate the environmental cost associated with cleaning up shit lagoons and groundwater contamination. Also, a local producer burns less fossil fuels bringing product to market. In factory farming, these are all costs that eventually reach the consumer in other ways. Our government pays for cheap factory beef through subsidies and will eventually need to spend money to clean up the mess they make. That money needs to come from somewhere... Oh look, it's the taxpayer's pocket!
Besides, that cheap beef doesn't look so cheap when you add the cost of a hospital bill—on the off chance that you're infected by e-coli. If you're poor or unhealthy in the first place, the damage from tainted food can be simply disastrous. Because I don't have health insurance, if I were to get an e-coli infection, I'd be fucked.
It just seems obvious: If you pack thousands of cows into holding cells where they will wade in their own shit while being fed antibiotics, protein from other animals and hormone-laced feed, you're likely to wind up with some pretty sketchy product coming out of that shiny looking processing plant.
The sheer density of animals packed onto feed lots in our nations heartland inevitably leads to disease. Industrial methods of beef production are so contrary to the natural order of things, is it any wonder that what we produce is both dangerous, tasteless, and economically unsound?
I try to buy most of my meat from small, local producers. Don't get me wrong, it's not that I'm some kind of holier-than-thou foodie with money to burn—with two jobs, I'm barely living above poverty level. Mostly, I buy local because I'm concerned about the safety of the meat I consume and the health of the local food economy. I feel incredibly lucky that I can do this. Most people in the US do not have this opportunity. Yes, sometimes the cost can be prohibitive, but the cost is worth the peace of mind; the beef I get at the farmers market is likely safer than what I'd get at Freddy's. Besides, the cost limits the amount of beef that I purchase each week. Frankly, I see that as a good thing. After all, I shouldn't really be consuming multiple pounds of beef anyway and I'm too obstinate to go vegan.
But you know what I like best about buying meat from local producers? When I lay my cash in their hands, I know every dollar is going to that grower. Plus, I know the person who produced my food. I can look them in them in the eye. It's about as close as I'll ever come to killing the animal myself.
If you've got any of that recalled beef in your freezer right now, take it back for a refund. Then take that cash and hit the farmers market. You may not get as much beef for your buck, but it will taste a hell of a lot better and you probably won't end up in the ER.