What could be simpler than a hamburger? Take a ground beef patty, throw it on a
grill, wait a few minutes as the fat sizzles, maybe add some cheese, and stick
it on a bun. It's a thoroughly American operation that takes place countless
times a day all around the country. The average American, in fact, eats three
hamburgers a week. And with more meat available than ever before, today's beef
costs 30 percent less than it did in 1970, making it that much more attractive
to consumers looking for a quick, cheap meal.
But in "Modern Meat," FRONTLINE goes inside the world of the modern American
meat industry and shows that this once simple product, the hamburger, is no
longer so simple.
Nor can you assume that it's safe. While sweeping changes in the meat industry
-- making it vastly more centralized, high-tech, and efficient -- have led to
the low prices, the transformation has also introduced new risks. In "Modern
Meat," FRONTLINE speaks with scientists and industry observers
who say that pooling thousands of cows in feedlots makes it easier for bacteria
to spread from one animal to another.
"Cows tend to produce feces [and] feces is primarily bacteria," says Glenn
Morris, a microbiologist at the University of Maryland and a former USDA
official. "In the larger feedlots," he adds, "there's a greater chance for the
passage of microorganisms back and forth. All of that contributes to the spread
of microorganisms like E. coli."
Dr. Robert Tauxe is also concerned. "The new highly industrialized way
we produce meat has opened up new ecological homes for a number of bacteria,"
says Tauxe, head of the Centers for Disease Control's Foodborne and Diarrheal
Diseases branch. Gone are the days, Tauxe says, when a hamburger patty
contained the meat from a single cow; with enormous numbers of cattle now being
herded, fattened, slaughtered, and ground up together, it's virtually
impossible to determine how many cows contribute to a single burger.
The meat industry, however, is confident that America's meat is safer than
ever, and it has resisted new federal regulations. But the fact remains that
contaminated meat is getting through the system. Last year, more than 100
million pounds of meat had to be recalled.
This FRONTLINE report tracks how the consequences of bacterial contamination can be deadly. In 1993, Jack in the
Box hamburgers contaminated with a deadly strain of E. coli killed four
children and caused more than 700 illnesses. Carol Tucker Foreman, head
of food safety at the Consumer Federation of America and a former USDA
official, points to another case in which 16 deaths and five stillbirths were
connected to hot dogs contaminated with listeria. Just last summer, the
nation's largest meat processor had to recall 300,000 pounds of beef
contaminated with E. coli bacteria.
Following the Jack in the Box outbreak, the government proposed a new
inspection system -- known as "HACCP" (Hazard Analysis and Critical Control
Points) -- that would for the first time require microbial testing to detect
invisible yet harmful bacteria such as E. coli and
salmonella. Since the start of this new system, the USDA has
reported a drop in salmonella contamination of ground beef, while the Centers
for Disease Control also has seen a decrease in the incidence of
certain food-borne illnesses.
Yet "Modern Meat" shows why the American consumer still may face serious risks. There is increasing
evidence that the modern meat industry's widespread use of antibiotics
to promote growth and keep livestock healthy may result in the development
of bacterial strains that are resistant to antibiotic treatment. Global free trade has increased the risk of diseased cattle or beef
coming into the U.S. and decimating the livestock population. And some contend that a recent court ruling further threatens the safety of the
nation's food supply. FRONTLINE examines a lawsuit filed by a
Texas meat-grinding company, Supreme Beef, against the U.S. Department
of Agriculture. When the USDA effectively shut down the company after it failed
bacterial contamination tests three times -- once after nearly 50 percent of
its meat was found to be contaminated with salmonella -- the company sued.
Supported in its lawsuit by the National Meat Association, Supreme Beef charged
that the government didn't have the right to shut down its operations simply
because it failed to meet the USDA salmonella standards. Last month, a federal
appeals court ruled in favor of the company.
"I think what the [meat] industry is saying is that they don't want to be
accountable for the product that they're selling," says Eric Schlosser,
author of Fast Food Nation, an exposé of the meat and fast-food
industry. "This industry has fought against food-safety inspection for 100
"It's not that the beef industry is fighting standards that are meaningful, that
improve the wholesomeness of the product," counters Patrick Boyle, president of the American Meat Institute. "The beef industry has reservations
about unscientific standards that have no relation to the safety of our
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