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photo of schlosserinterview: eric schlosser

Where does hamburger come from?

Hamburger comes from cattle. The cattle start on ranches, and then are sold to feedlots. And the feedlots aren't small little operations with 30 to 40 cattle in them. They're enormous, and can have up to 100,000 cattle in a single feedlot.

This has huge implications for food safety, because these cattle are often living like in a medieval city, in their own manure. From the feedlot, they'll get shipped to the slaughterhouse, processed into smaller cuts of meat, and then go to the grinder -- many slaughterhouses have a grinder right nearby -- and then go into further processing at a patty plant. Then they'll be at the fast-food restaurant, from the patty plant. ...

... Who is the driving force in making the meat industry what it is today, and how we get our meat in a supermarket or at a restaurant?

There were a few driving forces. One driving force was the concentration that's gone on across our economy in the last 20 years. And meatpacking is just one more example of a few companies gaining control of a market.


Schlosser is an award-winning investigative journalist and author of Fast Food Nation, a book about what he calls the "dark side of the all-American meal." Here, Schlosser talks about the conditions inside slaughterhouses and how they may promote the spread of pathogens throughout the meat supply. He says that today, certain fast-food companies -- not federal government agencies -- are the most rigorous testers of meat.

At the same time, the fast-food chains played a major, major role in pushing centralization and industrialization of meatpacking. These chains want a huge amount of product that's uniform in consistency, so they're not buying from little suppliers anymore.

The meat industry should just acknowledge what's common sense: Fecal contamination of your meat is not a good thing.

McDonald's used to buy from over 100 regional ground-beef suppliers. But as McDonald's got bigger and bigger, they reduced that number to five. So this had the impact of creating bigger and bigger meatpacking companies to supply the fast-food chains. And in a very short period of time, we got a very concentrated meatpacking industry.

If you were to go back to 1970, the top four firms controlled 20-plus percent of the market. And today, the top four firms control about 85 percent of the market. So we've gotten bigger slaughterhouses, bigger processing facilities, and really, really big meatpacking companies.

... How have highly centralized slaughter facilities changed or increased food-safety risks? ...

The centralization of the meat system has enlarged potential for a large outbreak. It used to be that outbreaks were on a smaller, regional level, because suppliers were shipping to a very localized area. When you have a grinder putting out almost a million pounds of ground beef a day, that meat's going to be shipped not just throughout the United States, but also sometimes overseas. So if there's a problem, this meat can be across America and even international before people realize that contaminated meat has been shipped. ...

And at the same time, these very, very big meatpacking companies have very close relationships with members of the Congress and with the administration and the USDA. So these big companies are often more responsible for our food-safety policies than the American voters. ...

How do you learn that there's a problem with the meat when, say, by the time you find out it's all over the place? ...

There may be a cluster of illnesses in one town, and epidemiologists will trace it back to meat at a restaurant. If there's a sample of the meat left over in the restaurant, maybe they can find out what plant it came from, and that can precipitate a big recall.

Unfortunately, most of the time they never find out where the meat comes from. And even when there's a recall, a lot of the meat has already been eaten by the time they ever realize there was a problem with it.

Most of the cases of E. coli O157:H7 are sporadic cases. They're not part of a big outbreak that can be easily linked to one source. As a matter of fact, most cases of food poisoning are never linked back to their source. So the meatpacking industry has the advantage of accountability being very, very difficult to prove.

Could it be that the fact that we're not finding a lot of these outbreaks linked back to a source means that they don't link back to these centralized sources?

Well, they've got a source. And in terms of what proportion of the illnesses are caused by ground beef, what proportion are caused by fruits and vegetables that haven't been cooked, this is stuff that the science is going to have to discover. But if you're looking at meat and you're testing meat, and you're finding pathogens that can make people sick, and people are getting sick from these same bugs in society, logic would dictate that some of them are getting sick from the meat. ...

[H]ow do [slaughterhouses] contribute to the spreading of pathogens or the increased food safety risks?

... The slaughterhouses that the United States have are pretty unique in terms of the speed of production. We have slaughterhouses that will process 300, 400 cattle an hour, which is as much as twice as many as anywhere else in the world. And it's that speed of production that can lead to food-safety problems.

When workers are working very quickly, they may make mistakes. It's during the evisceration of the animal, or the removal of the hide, that manure can get on the meat. And when manure gets on some meat, and then that meat is ground up with lots of other meat, the whole lot of it can be contaminated. ...

At a slaughterhouse, you have big animals entering at one end, and small cuts of meat leaving at the other end. In between are hundreds of workers, mainly using handheld knives, processing the meat.

So during that whole production system, there are many opportunities for the meat to be contaminated. What we're really talking about is fecal contamination of the meat from the stomach contents or the hide of the animal. When workers are working too quickly, they can make mistakes. And if a little bit of meat gets contaminated, when it's ground up, it can contaminate a lot of meat.

I would imagine that a lot goes into the design of these factory production lines to make them very efficient. ... So you would think that they would be expert at doing their job and therefore contain the pathogens in some way. Is that how it works?

There have been a lot of technological advances in slaughterhouses, and especially food-safety technology improvements since the Jack in the Box outbreak -- these steam cabinets and various washes and interventions. But one of the problems is the high, high turnover rate among workers at these plants. The industry averages anywhere from 75 percent to 100 percent a year, which means you have a constant flow of workers in and out of these jobs.

Ideally, what you would have would be skilled workers and a stable work force, so that people really know the jobs they're doing and can do them properly. ... That's not what we have right now ... especially [with] some of the most important jobs in terms of the evisceration and the tying off of the intestines. These are really unpleasant jobs, and if the workers are not skilled at doing them, they can make mistakes that contaminate the meat.

Just explain dehiding for me. What does that even mean?

Dehiding is when the hide of the animal is being removed. The hide is often quite dirty when the animals have been packed closely together or when they've been outside the slaughterhouse awaiting their fate. They may get manure on the hide. And it's in the dehiding process that some of the manure may fall off the skin and the fur and onto the meat.

One guy I talked to who worked in one of these plants was talking about the dehiding. When they pull the hide off, it sort of aerosolizes, and then can go anywhere. So it becomes incredibly difficult to track down these little microbes.

... There a couple of problems when it comes to contamination of the meat. Some of it is visible manure on the meat. The other problem is the invisible aerosoled manure that is spread everywhere.

There's some argument that some of these washes may actually be spreading and aerosoling some of these pathogens. These bugs are invisible; really dangerous bugs are invisible. That's why you need to have testing of the meat, to find out dangers that you can't see with your eyes. ... Modern science has given us that ability and we should be using it. ...

We are using it, aren't we?

We're not using it enough. I think there should be very strict limits on the pathogens that can be sold in your meat. There should be limits on disease-causing pathogens. Tests should determine whether the meat is contaminated or not, and you shouldn't be allowed to sell contaminated meat. Seems very straightforward to me.

We have this new inspection system [HACCP] that, for the first time, brought in the microbe testing. Wasn't that a good change? Doesn't that give us some reassurance that the meat is safer?

Bringing in pathogen testing was a very good change. Unfortunately, the system has been changed since then, so that the government can't really do much based on the test results that it has.

The key is to hold these companies accountable for the disease-causing bugs in the meat. And if the USDA cannot shut down a processing plant because of high, high levels of salmonella, what's the point of doing the testing in the first place?

It's amazing that right now in the United States, you can sell ground beef that's full of salmonella that could make people very sick, and that ground beef will have a USDA label on it. It's perfectly legal to sell. That's crazy. I mean, meat should be tested, and safe meat should be offered for sale. And meat that contains dangerous pathogens shouldn't be allowed to be sold at a market.

The meat industry argues that salmonella and some of these other pathogens are almost unavoidable in the meat, and that the key issue is that there isn't salmonella in the cooked meat. ... They do their best to keep it clean along the way. It's also the consumer's responsibility to handle it properly and cook it well.

Well, that's the meatpacking industry's argument. And they're very, very opposed to any pathogen levels for the American consumer. But for their biggest customers, like the fast-food chains, they're more than willing to do all the pathogen testing in the world. McDonald's and Jack in the Box will not accept meat that [has] salmonella above a certain level, that [has] E. coli O157:H7 in it.

For some reason, these companies believe it's important not to have disease pathogens in the meat. And the meatpacking company has no problem with that. So I would say that the USDA should look at what the fast-food chains are doing, and afford the same protection to ordinary American consumers who get their meat at a supermarket.

So the USDA seal doesn't mean the same thing that [the] McDonald's stamp of approval does?

McDonald's right now has much tougher standards than the USDA. What's so ironic is that McDonald's has been testing for salmonella since 1993. It has a much tougher salmonella standard than the USDA ever adopted. And the meatpacking industry doesn't complain about that, because this is a very big, powerful customer.

The point is for smaller customers and for individuals to be getting safe meat, too. And that's where the government really should be stepping in. ...

Let's talk specifically about the packers and the role that they play. You talked about the power of the fast-food companies. I think people in general don't understand the dynamics of the meat industry and how it's segregated. Who are the big players on the block? Who are the ones that really control the meat industry?

There are really three companies that control the beef industry in the United States. Excel, which is a subsidiary of the huge agribusiness company Cargill. ConAgra, another huge agribusiness company. And Tyson IBP, which is the biggest meatpacking company the world has ever seen. These three companies are the heart of the American meatpacking industry.

How powerful are they?

They're very, very powerful. If you're a rancher or if you're a consumer, these three companies have an enormous impact on the sale of cattle and on the meat that's being purchased. ...

I've always had the sense that a slaughterhouse is a terrible job. It's a difficult job. That people have been doing too much in too short a time. Is it really any different now?

It's very different now. Work in a slaughterhouse has changed enormously in the last 25 years. It's always been a difficult job. It's always been a dangerous job. But up until recently, this was a job that had good pay, had good benefits, and you had a very stable work force. In the early 1970s, meatpacking had one of the lowest turnover rates of any industrial job in America. It was like being an autoworker.

Then they cut wages, they cut benefits, broke unions. And now it has one of the highest turnover rates of any industrial job. So you have a constant churning of the workers. And just like airport security -- where the airport security workers had a high turnover rate and [were] being treated badly and paid poorly, and that has an impact on airport safety -- I think the same is true with food safety.

The people who are working in these plants should be well trained and well paid, and it should be a stable work force. I think that would have a big impact on the safety of the food we eat. ...

What did the Jack in the Box outbreak reveal to us as a country? What was significant about that, other than obviously the deaths and illnesses?

The Jack in the Box outbreak revealed the potential for large-scale outbreaks of a very, very dangerous pathogen. There had been much smaller outbreaks of E. coli going back to a McDonald's outbreak in 1982, but not much attention had been paid to them. When 700 people were sickened across a number of different states, this was a wakeup call that there were some fundamental problems in our food safety system.

Did it also reveal the problems with the inspection system?

It showed that we were still using 19th-century inspection techniques in the late 20th century. The meatpacking industry had resisted for years any pathogen testing of the meat. But once children were dying, and once hundreds of people were sickened, it became very, very difficult for this industry to resist scientific testing of the meat, as the industry had been fighting it for years. ...

Scientists had been warning for years that our centralized meatpacking system was a perfect way of spreading dangerous diseases and pathogens. The Jack in the Box outbreak was the first time it really happened, and publicly happened. It was a wakeup call for regulators and for the public, and it led to the introduction of science-based inspection. ...

Today, what role are these fast-food companies like McDonald's and Jack in the Box playing in terms of improving food safety? ...

The irony is that the purchasing needs of the fast-food chains did a lot to create this problem in the first place. But now, ever since the Jack in the Box outbreak, they're purchasing probably the cleanest meat in the United States, because McDonald's and Jack in the Box are insisting on very rigorous testing of the meat that they purchase.

That's great. Unfortunately, the rest of the meat is being [shipped] off to the public and is being shipped off to supermarkets. And that meat isn't being tested anywhere near as much. ...

Are they skimming the cream off the top?

Well, I give them credit. I think that McDonald's and Jack in the Box are doing the responsible thing. They are using their purchasing power to insist upon tough, rigorous testing of the meat.

What I would like is our government to make the same demands of the meatpacking industry that the fast-food chains are now making. Jack in the Box has shown this can be done for just a penny a pound, I think, or a few pennies a pound.

Then why doesn't the government do it?

The government doesn't do it because the government is overly influenced by the meatpacking industry. ...

If you go back 100 years, you see the meatpacking industry and the federal government working very closely together. You see the USDA being enormously influenced by the meatpacking industry since its inception. And food safety has never been a top priority of the meatpacking industry when it comes to federal legislation. ...

But why would they do that? I mean, they're providing food. This is their product. This is their reputation.

Well, the meatpacking industry doesn't want anyone to get sick. They don't want their consumers to get sick. But at the same time, they're unwilling to spend the extra money to ensure they won't get sick. And most of all, they don't want the legal responsibility and liability if someone does get sick. ...

People need to understand that the current battle over food safety is not an isolated incident. It's part of a pattern going back 100 years, of fighting against every effort to inspect and regulate the safety of meat. ... If you look at what was happening 100 years ago and you look at the "four Ds" -- Dead, Diseased, Disabled, Dying animals -- that's what the debate [was about] in the early 1960s, [that] they couldn't sell these things through interstate commerce, but they were able to sell it within states. And that's what they were doing with these terribly diseased animals.

... In most cases, you can never link the illness back to a specific cut of meat or to a certain shipment. So they have worked very hard to avoid any of that kind of trace back and to avoid any testing, or to avoid any of the mechanisms that will hold them legally responsible for people getting sick from their meat. ...

If you look at the automobile industry and the way in which seatbelts and airbags have saved thousands and thousands of American lives, the automobile industry didn't do this voluntarily. It did it in the face of federal regulation. The automobile industry didn't want people to be killed in accidents, but it didn't want to spend the extra money to ensure they wouldn't be killed.

The government really needs to put pressure on the meatpacking industry to make sure that its products are safe.

But the meat industry says that they have spent millions of dollars in the last few years, that they actually supported HACCP going in; [that] they have done an enormous amount, and in some areas, can show improvement in the safety of meat.

The meatpacking industry has spent millions of dollars improving its food-safety technology in recent years. It has embraced HACCP. But what it hasn't embraced is being held accountable to the disease-causing pathogens in its meat. And they should be held accountable according to a certain standard.

Why is that so important, to be held accountable?

Well, HACCP is a process. HACCP is a description of a manufacturing process and how that process is monitored. But the most important thing isn't the process they're using. The most important thing is the quality of the meat that they're shipping. Now, a number of companies have proven that they can ship meat without dangerous pathogens, so this isn't impossible to do. All companies should be measured by whether their meat can make you sick or not, and that's what this industry resists. They resist any formal accountability of what's in the meat that they're selling.

Let me just read a couple things that [American Meat Institute President] Patrick Boyle said, because they seem like logical arguments. "It's not that the beef industry is fighting standards that are meaningful, that improve the wholesomeness of the product. The beef industry has reservations about unscientific standards that have no relation to the safety of the product."

Well, why would McDonald's be employing standards that are totally unscientific for salmonella or for E. coli or fecal contamination? McDonald's is the biggest purchaser of beef in the world. I assume they know something about the meat that they're buying, and they don't want salmonella in it. So why should ordinary consumers be getting salmonella in their ground beef? ...

[Fast-food chains] are the biggest purchasers of beef in the United States. They are setting very tough standards for the meatpacking industry. I think the American people should be receiving meat that's of the same level of cleanliness.

These big purchasers of meat think it's significant if there are high levels of salmonella in the meat. They think it's significant if there are high levels of fecal contamination. So if the fast-food chains think this is good science and it's significant, I think that's important. The meat industry should just acknowledge what's common sense: Fecal contamination of your meat is not a good thing.

That's a good way of saying it.

Yes. At some point, all these arguments are just absurd. If you look at the Supreme Beef decision -- the Court of Appeals decision -- and you read through all the legalisms, it might make sense on one level. But behind it all is just common sense, which is that you don't want salmonella in your ground beef. You don't want fecal material in your ground beef.

And these big purchasers of ground beef -- McDonald's, Jack in the Box, Burger King -- they don't want it in their meat, either. So the meatpacking industry's arguments kind of dissipate and vanish in the face of common sense. ...

I think it's very simple. The government should be testing for pathogens that can make people sick. And if there's too much of those pathogens in the meat, [companies] shouldn't be allowed to sell the meat. Now, you can argue about what's an adulterant or what's not an adulterant. But under the law, you can't sell rubber gloves that have been ground up in the ground beef. That's an adulterant, but most likely, that won't make you sick. Salmonella could make you very sick. A lot of the pathogens that are linked to fecal contamination can make you sick.

So it just makes common sense that there should be limits on how much of the fecal material and of these bugs should be in your meat. ...

So explain to me what the Supreme Beef case is. Just give me a little thumbnail sketch of what it is and why it's important.

... Supreme Beef marked the first time in history that the USDA shut down a ground-beef plant for high levels of salmonella contamination. And this wasn't just any ground-beef plant -- this was a ground beef plant that was supplying as much as 45 percent of the meat for the national school lunch program. This meat was going to be sold and served to kids. So the USDA shut down this plant. Supreme Beef immediately challenged that decision, arguing that salmonella shouldn't be regarded as an adulterant of ground beef, and arguing that the government had no right to shut down their plant for high levels of salmonella contamination.

Now, at the heart of this case is the question of whether science-based testing can be used to shut down a plant or not. Supreme Beef argued that it shouldn't be held responsible for the contamination of this meat, because it was simply a processor. And the National Meat Association entered the case, arguing processors can't be held accountable for the contamination of their meat.

But in this case, Supreme Beef was buying much of its meat from its own slaughterhouse. And that slaughterhouse had high levels of salmonella contamination, and had failed three consecutive tests for salmonella.

The Supreme Beef decision throws into question the entire ability of the USDA to shut down plants that are contaminated with pathogens, because if salmonella isn't an adulterant -- even though it makes over a million Americans sick every year -- why is E. coli O157:H7 an adulterant? Why is botulism something that you don't want to have in your meat?

You could argue that that salmonella and E. coli, if you cook the meat thoroughly, won't hurt you. But the reality is [that] these things shouldn't be in your meat. There are ways to keep them out of the meat. And these companies are unwilling to keep them out for the American consumer the way that they are for the fast-food chains. ...

First of all, what do you mean by an "adulterant"? It's a technical term. What does that actually mean?

When the first meat inspection law was passed, it said that you could not have any adulterants in the meat. That's stuff that shouldn't be in meat. And I think the original legislation referred to filth, but it also might be something like metal shavings or glass or various contaminants of the meat.

The meatpacking industry argues that salmonella is not an adulterant of meat because it's so commonly found in meat. Well, the reason it's so commonly found is because the meat has been contaminated by fecal material. That's the most likely source of salmonella. So it's quite an argument that they're making: "We've contaminated our meat. And therefore, the meat isn't contaminated." ...

There are many good companies that are producing clean meat. And what's unfortunate is they have to compete against companies that are much sloppier, that are shipping dirty meat. It's the good companies that show that these changes can be made and that meat doesn't have to be contaminated with salmonella. ...

Both the USDA and the industry are saying this isn't a significant ruling, because it was used against very few plants.

... I don't put much faith in the USDA at the moment. One of the first things that the USDA did after the election of President Bush was to eliminate the salmonella standard for ground beef that they were purchasing to be served to children in schools. And there was such an uproar after that, that they backed away and resumed salmonella testing for the beef that's going to be served in schools. This USDA is not vigorously opposing the meatpacking industry. ...

Today we have the testing. But there's no real punishment on the horizon after the Supreme Beef case. The USDA is really backing away from tough enforcement.

So you think the [decline in salmonella incidents is] actually proof that the system was working, and needs to be as tough as it was?

The improvements, I think, are due to the fact that these companies were finally being held accountable by something that could be measured -- the amount of salmonella in their meat -- and they knew if they failed their tests, they may face closure. I think a great deal of that accountability has been lost. It is such a rare, rare event that a plant will be closed. In the Supreme Beef case ... as much as 50 percent of [the meat] was contaminated with salmonella. They were shut down.

And they won the case [challenging the USDA's decision to shut down its plant]. I think this sends a very clear message about where the real power lies at the moment. ... Here was a company [Supreme Beef] that repeatedly failed tests for a dangerous pathogen. The USDA, for the first time in its history, shuts down a plant because of scientific-based tests showing this pathogen is there. And the USDA loses the case. This sends a clear message that this pathogen testing and that this whole science-based system can be overturned by the meatpacking industry.

All the other testing that the USDA does now has been called into question, because if salmonella is not an adulterant in meat, if it's perfectly fine to sell meat with salmonella, why not sell it with campylobacter? Why not sell it with all kinds of other pathogens? This was a very important ruling. ...

[Explain HACCP.]

HACCP is a process. It's a system for determining where food-safety risks are and dealing with them. ... But much more important than any process are the results, and the testing shows you the results. The testing shows you if the meat is contaminated, and how badly. So to have HACCP, a process, without any measurement at the end of it is almost meaningless. The most important thing are the results. ...

Explain to me the difference between the old system and [HACCP]. What changed?

What changed significantly in 1996 [with HACCP] is that the government got the power to test for disease-causing pathogens in meat and hold companies accountable scientifically for the meat that they were shipping. Previously, inspectors could only look at the meat, sniff it, poke it, but couldn't perform these scientific tests that would hold these companies accountable.

I think the introduction of HACCP was part of a bargain that was made. Meatpacking companies were given more power over the food-safety practices and techniques in their plants. And inspectors were pulled back from the line. In return, the USDA was supposed to receive much more power for testing and for holding these companies accountable. ...

You say [HACCP] gave the companies more power. What do you mean?

The introduction of HACCP removed many inspectors from plant floors. [Testing] was supposed to be done scientifically. And inspectors, instead of looking at all these carcasses, were put into offices and looking at paperwork to make sure that all the various testing was being done properly.

So the companies were very eager to get the inspectors off of the plant floor. And they got that. ... The whole aim is to get inspectors out of the plant entirely. It used to be that an inspector literally had to examine every carcass and was visually inspecting every carcass, but couldn't perform tests on the meat.

Today, inspectors are being pulled off of the floor and put into offices in order to go through paperwork. The meatpacking companies have been successful in removing inspectors from the floor without being held accountable through rigorous testing of the meat. ...

HACCP is a process-oriented system. It analyzes where things can go wrong in a plant. But I think you're better off not having HACCP but having strict testing of the meat, than you are having all these HACCP plans without real accountability. The biggest recall in American history -- the Hudson Foods recall, which was 25 [million] or 35 million pounds of potentially contaminated ground beef -- that plant had a HACCP plan.

HACCP plans can go wrong. The key is testing. The key is making sure that the meat coming out the door isn't contaminated.

We talked to some inspectors who have a hard time with HACCP. This is an industry, however, that inspectors have had difficult relationships with their companies all along. Are we letting the fox guard the chicken coop? What do you make of these inspectors' complaints?

I think the inspectors' complaints have a lot of validity. In pulling inspectors back without extensive and rigorous testing for dangerous organisms, you are giving enormous power over to these companies. The introduction of HACCP was supposed to give the companies the benefit of more control over how they dealt with food safety.

But at the same time, it was supposed to give the government the power to hold these companies accountable for what they're shipping out the door through scientific testing. You eliminate the testing, and you've basically given an enormous amount of power back to the meatpacking industry. ...

Let's [talk about] irradiation. ... It seems that, certainly, the industry's argument is that even amongst the best companies -- with all they do, the millions they spend, the amount of testing they do -- they can't guarantee that the meat is free of E. coli. They say that irradiation, which the National Academy of Science and others have endorsed, would address this serious public health risk. Given the situation we find ourselves in, isn't [irradiation] an appropriate response?

I don't think there have been any large-scale epidemiological studies of people eating irradiated meat over long, long periods of time. I hope irradiated meat is safe, and it very well may be. But before you start irradiating the meat, I think the meatpacking industry should be cleaning up its plants, because if you just start irradiating the meat, you're allowing them to essentially irradiate the feces on the meat.

So there's two questions. Firstly, should we be selling and buying irradiated meat? I think that's up to the consumer, ultimately. But the second point is, this irradiated meat should be clearly and unmistakably labeled as irradiated meat. And the industry has tried very, very hard to avoid that and to come up with all kinds of euphemisms for what's happening to the meat and what's in the meat.

There are many companies right now that are producing very clean ground beef without irradiation. And my fear about irradiation is it'll be a perfect excuse for this industry not to clean up its act in the way that it really needs to. This may turn out to be a very wonderful technology, long-term. But we really don't know enough about it, I think, to introduce it on a large scale. ...

The other thing is, once the meat's irradiated, it can become contaminated and colonized by all kinds of bad bugs. ... It's irradiated, but then it's got to be transported. And there are so many other opportunities. If it's sterile, there may be good bugs in it, but they get killed off. And then it just gets colonized by terribly bad bugs. ...

Explain how irradiation hurts the good players.

... Right now, there are meatpacking companies who are doing a very good job at producing clean meat. And there are companies that are doing a very bad job. Irradiation levels the playing field. In a way, it punishes the companies who are spending the extra money, doing the testing in order to do things right.

I think irradiation is a way for this industry not to be forced to clean up its act. I don't think we should introduce something that helps the sloppiest companies compete against the really good companies.

Because ultimately you're sanitizing fecal material?

Well, when you're irradiating meat, you're irradiating it and everything on it, including the fecal material. I would prefer to have meat without fecal material, as opposed to meat with irradiated fecal material. ...

The meat industry says that meat should not be labeled "irradiated," it should be called "cold pasteurization." What does that mean? Why not "irradiation"?

I think that they're trying to avoid revealing what's actually been done to the meat. "Cold pasteurization" is a phrase that's been invented to cover up the fact that this meat has been irradiated. And, I think much more important, is if they're going to irradiate the meat, they should openly reveal that's what they're doing to it so that consumers can decide if they want to eat it or not.

Tom Harkin, a longtime advocate of food-safety issues, has put this into the Farm Bill. What do you make of that?

Senator Harkin slipped it into the Farm Bill. He's been a great food-safety advocate, but I think his interest in this case has less to do with food safety than the fact that one of the largest manufacturers of irradiation equipment is from his home state. ...

The meat supply is under all kinds of threats. ... If you can't bring in new technologies, or if you're limited -- if at one level, we're saying technology is bad here, the centralization of the technologies that have led to that, and all of that, is a problem -- is the answer, then, to step back?

... I think some technologies -- new technologies -- are wonderful, and some new technologies are not. In the case of ground beef, I think slowing down the production line and trimming the meat much more carefully to keep the manure off it is more important than introducing irradiation that has uncertain long-term health effects. The fact is, there are some companies who are able to produce clean meat without radiation and irradiation. Those companies should be rewarded, and companies that are producing dirty meat should be punished. Irradiation, I think, unfairly levels the playing field between those two groups.

But given the threats out there, isn't there a need for finding new ways to address these new threats, as opposed to slowing down the line, reducing the number of cows in a feedlot? ...

I think some of the new technologies are quite good. These high-pressure steam cabinets, for example. But that doesn't mean that irradiation is good. Each technology needs to be judged on its own criteria and for its own possible long-term effects.

Irradiation may prove to be totally safe or it may not. So I think before we start irradiating the meat, we can do much simpler, commonsense changes to this industry that might have a huge effect. ... There are much simpler changes that could occur that would have enormous effects. I think just testing the meat constantly will change the behavior of the meatpacking industry.

And there isn't always a simple technological solution. Sometimes the solutions are much easier than that. ...

How significant are [recalls]? What should we think of when we hear that 500,000 pounds of ground beef are recalled from an IBP plant, or...

The importance of recalls is to show that contaminated meat is getting out the door. And when you look at these recalls, in many ways the most disturbing thing about these recalls is how little of the meat actually winds up back at the plant. Again and again, you'll find the meat is eaten before the recall has been widely announced. So I think that these recalls are a sign that the system isn't working properly. Ideally, you wouldn't be sending contaminated meat out the door.

In some ways, it's proof that HACCP works, because we've had a huge increase in recalls. It's shown us what the problem is.

In a way. I mean, the recalls are a sign that contaminated meat is being widely shipped throughout the United States. The reason you didn't have recalls before is because nobody was testing the meat in the same way. ... I think one of the guiding principles of this industry for too long is that if you don't test, you don't know that you have a problem, and you don't have to deal with it. I think that the testing is forcing the industry to deal with the fact that it's shipping contaminated meat. ...

[It's] unbelievable that state health authorities often can't track what stores are selling the meat, because the meatpacking industry argues this is proprietary information.

Now, you know their competitors know exactly where they're selling the meat -- but they're not revealing this to state authorities. And it could have a huge impact in terms of preventing people from eating contaminated meat.

How significant is it that the USDA does not have mandatory recall authority?

It's incredible to me that the federal government can order the recall of a stuffed animal with a glass eye that could come off and choke a child, but that the federal government cannot order the recall of thousands of pounds of contaminated ground beef that could kill a child. I think the lack of recall authority is a very powerful sign of how influential the meatpacking industry has been, and how it's been able to avoid tough regulation. The federal government absolutely needs the power to order the recall of meat; the absence of that power is incredible.

The meat industry says that they have never not cooperated with a recall request from the USDA, and therefore, it's not needed.

If you look at the press releases whenever there's a recall, these companies make very clear that it's a voluntary recall. What happens is, when the government starts asking for a recall, there's a negotiation process. And while they're negotiating how much meat should be recalled, people are eating that meat.

This is not a trivial matter. This is meat that is potentially contaminated with bugs that could kill you. ...

We've talked a lot about salmonella and E. coli. Are those the only problems out there?

If you look at the pathogens that are causing enormous concern right now -- E. coli O157:H7, listeria, campylobacter -- these have only been recognized in the last 20 years or so. The great bulk of food-poisoning cases involve pathogens that haven't even been recognized yet. ...

The problem is that this centralized system of distribution of production is perfect for spreading all kinds of pathogens. There may be pathogens that we haven't even discovered yet, or there may be entirely new pathogens that are introduced to our country. And this system is ideal for spreading them far and wide. We're very fortunate that we've never had Mad Cow Disease yet in the United States. But a centralized system of this kind would be ideal for spreading it. ...

Jack in the Box made us understand this risk. Have we dealt with it effectively?

The Jack in the Box outbreak demonstrated to the public the risk of these pathogens in the meat and of the system. I think there was a real start towards dealing with it adequately. And the Supreme Beef case is a step backward. We need to be much more adamant and rigorous about testing the meat for dangerous pathogens. ... Who knows what could come next?

Are you anti-meat?

I still eat beef. I've been into the processing plants and slaughterhouses, and I still eat beef. But I'm angry about what's in a lot of our meat, and I think other people should be angry too. So much of this is unnecessary. We can be producing a great deal of beef without many of the harms and without many of the pathogens that are now in the meat. ...

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