Another beef recall: What's really in your burger

Another beef recall: What's really in your burger
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Our nation is in the midst of yet another massive meat recall — this time involving more than 12 million pounds of tainted beef. Hundreds of people have been sickened and dozens hospitalized with salmonella poisoning, as the government reminds consumers about the importance of taking precautions to avoid being infected.

The reality: Meat should be handled like feces because it is commonly contaminated with fecal pathogens, which is why it’s important to wash our hands and sanitize utensils and anything else that meat has touched.

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In addition to foodborne outbreaks that lead to food recalls, illnesses caused by unknown pathogens and other factory-farm contaminants also occur, and this will remain a constant risk — especially if cows, pigs, chickens and other animals exploited for food continue to be confined in disease-ridden conditions and killed at slaughterhouses where profit and speed guide the process.

Factory farms cut corners and routinely act irresponsibly, undermining animal welfare, worker safety, environmental protection and consumer health. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has acted as a willing accomplice. It permits high levels of pus cells (i.e. somatic cells) to be present in cows’ milk, and it even allows ailing animals to be slaughtered and sold for human consumption, including animals who are too sick even to walk, referred to as “downed animals.”  

For decades, activists campaigned to prevent downed cows from being used for human food, but despite the risk of mad cow disease, the government dismissed and denied these concerns, adopting a “don’t look, don’t find” posture.

The USDA finally admitted the presence of mad cow disease in the United States, and this led to regulations in 2008 to prevent the slaughter of downed cows for human consumption. This is a positive step, but it was implemented too slowly and begrudgingly, and there are still unacceptable risks to consumers. The USDA continues to allow diseased animals, and downed animals other than cattle, to be slaughtered and used for human food, and slaughterhouse-inspection practices are notoriously inadequate.

Ironically, the only federal law that prohibits cruelty to farm animals is an oxymoron called the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act. Farm animals are specifically  Act, and animal agriculture producers can legally treat cows, pigs, chickens and other farm animals so badly that many die before even reaching the slaughterhouse every year.

Livestock animals are seen as production units, and the goal of agribusiness is to raise and kill them as quickly and cheaply as possible for profit, with little regard to their welfare or threats to consumers. Instead of improving conditions to prevent animal suffering, illness and death, or providing necessary veterinary care for ailing animals, farmers commonly send sickly animals to slaughter for human consumption.

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The animal agriculture industry is economically and politically entrenched and wields undue influence over government institutions, which in turn support and enable factory farming. In reality, we should work to feed more people with fewer resources, and also significantly reduce our nation’s health care costs, through plant-based agriculture.

As Upton Sinclair, author of “The Jungle,” which exposed slaughterhouse abuses early in the 20th century, cogently observed: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.” Factory-farm profiteers have a vested interest in deluding themselves, and in convincing consumers to believe that animal agriculture is necessary for our health and well-being. We are better off eating plants, not animals, and the USDA should be doing much more to support and encourage plant-based agriculture.

Government policies have thus far failed to serve the public good. Until they do, it’s up to each of us to think critically about what we eat, and to make informed food choices that are aligned with our interests, not the interests of industrial animal agriculture.

Gene Baur is president and co-founder of Farm Sanctuary, a national farm animal rescue and advocacy organization, and a faculty member at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.