Andrew Gumbel: At last, Americans swallow the truth about their burgers

At some plants, inspectors have found cattle being killed that are infected with tapeworms
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The Independent Online

America has no Mad Cow scare, or at least not yet. It has no foot-and-mouth epidemic. Beef consumption is as high as ever, thanks to large part to the ubiquity of fast-food burger chains. In fact, to stop any of the innumerable freeway off-ramps or suburban mini-malls across the country where fast food proliferates as inevitably as mould in a petri dish, you'd never guess anything could possibly be wrong.

America has no Mad Cow scare, or at least not yet. It has no foot-and-mouth epidemic. Beef consumption is as high as ever, thanks to large part to the ubiquity of fast-food burger chains. In fact, to stop any of the innumerable freeway off-ramps or suburban mini-malls across the country where fast food proliferates as inevitably as mould in a petri dish, you'd never guess anything could possibly be wrong.

On any given day, one American in four stops off at a fast-food joint. Burgers and fries have become so ubiquitous that they are the meal of choice three times a week on average - the majority of them eaten at McDonald's, Burger King, or one of the other big chains. Last year, Americans spent a staggering $110bn feeding this habit. Mad Cow? Most fast-food customers haven't even heard of it. Does that mean a burger eaten across the Atlantic is a burger eaten risk-free? If you read Eric Schlosser's startling new book Fast Food Nation, just out in the States and already a best-seller, you certainly won't think so. In fact, like the author himself - formerly an unapologetic, unsuspecting hamburger fan - once you reach the end of the book, the chances are you'll never want to eat hamburgers or any other form of industrial minced beef again.

Schlosser describes in horrific detail how the ever more mechanised cattle and meat-packing industry is exposed to risk of infection by virulent pathogens including listeria, salmonella and a real nasty called E. coli 0157:H7 that can lead to kidney failure, anaemia, internal bleeding and the destruction of vital organs. Some of his findings will be familiar from recent exposés in Europe.

Cattle are fed the processed waste of dead animals, including pigs, horses and poultry, as well as myriad animal plant by-products such as sawdust and old newspapers. (They were also fed dead cattle, dogs and cats until the British BSE scare prompted a modest change in regulations in 1997.) Fecal material regularly spills into the meat, either because it falls off improperly cleaned hides as they are pulled off or because the minimum-wage workers who pull out the intestines accidentally dribble some of their contents.

At some meat-packing plants, federal inspectors have found cattle being slaughtered that are infected with measles and tapeworms. Aside from fecal material, shipments of raw meat can also include anything from insects and metal shavings to urine and vomit.

What compounds these problems is the extraordinary consolidation of beef production in the United States, largely under the influence of giant fast-food chains who want every one of their patties to look and taste exactly the same. Just 13 meat-packing companies control the industry, and their considerable lobbying sway in Washington - particularly with the Republican Party that has controlled either Congress or the White House for 18 of the last 20 years - has virtually allowed them to dictate their own industry regulations.

As Schlosser writes: "Today the US government can demand the nationwide recall of defective softball bats, sneakers, stuffed animals and foam-rubber toy cows. But it cannot order a meat-packing company to remove contaminated, potentially lethal ground beef from fast-food kitchens and supermarket shelves." There have been two major public health scares in the past 10 years, both involving E.coli 0157:H7. The first, in 1993, affected more than 700 customers of the Jack in the Box chain, which almost went bankrupt as a result. More than 200 people were rushed to hospital, and four died after suffering heart attacks, strokes, kidney failure and rapid decomposition of their brains.

The second, in 1997, led to the largest food recall in US history, some 35 million pounds of beef produced at a Hudson Foods plant in Nebraska. The recall was virtually useless because, by the time announced, two-thirds of the meat had already been consumed.

Food industry experts grimly expect some kind of public health disaster if the system continues unchecked in its present form. It does not help that government-funded school meals include beef bought in bulk from the cheapest, least health-conscious supplies; several dozen children have fallen ill from meat supplied by companies with a track record of processing diseased or dead cattle and whose plants have been found to be infested with rats and cockroaches.

The fast-food industry has not reacted to Fast Food Nation - whose stir has been caused largely among America's chattering classes, who abhor fast food anyway - but it has made some modest moves away from beef and "diversified". McDonald's has bought into chicken, pizza and Mexican food chains. A century ago, when hamburgers were not yet identified as the quintessential American meal, one food critic likened the minced beef patty to "getting your meat out of a garbage can". It's a truth consumers worldwide had better wake up to before it makes them, literally, sick.

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