By Annie Lowrey
It’s never good to see how sausage gets made, the New York Times reminded readers this weekend, with its excellent investigative report into how potentially lethal pathogens like E. Coli end up in our nation’s meat-grinders, homes, and stomachs.
The article explores the beef processing industry, and failures to regulate it, via the sad story of Stephanie Smith — a healthy young woman, a Minnesotan, a children’s dance instructor, and, like me, someone who keeps mostly vegetarian. She ate a hamburger at her parents’ place — a hamburger comprised of contaminated meat from multiple sources.
The Times — in a passage reminiscent of Upton Sinclair for its stomach-turning gore — reports it contained “a mix of slaughterhouse trimmings and a mash-like product derived from scraps that were ground together at a plant in Wisconsin. The ingredients came from slaughterhouses in Nebraska, Texas and Uruguay, and from a South Dakota company that processes fatty trimmings and treats them with ammonia to kill bacteria.”
The contaminated burger started by giving Smith run-of-the-mill stomach flu symptoms, but ended up shutting down her kidneys and inducing violent seizures. Doctors put her in a protective coma for more than two months. Even now, she might never walk again, due to extensive nervous-system damage. All from one burger.
The story also sheds some insight into a company which has interested me for some time now: Cargill. Most people likely haven’t heard of it. But millions of Americans have consumed a Cargill product in the past day. It is one of America’s 10 biggest companies and the largest privately-held corporation — earning $3.33 billion on $116.6 billion in revenue last year. It is also an intensely private company — not too much information emanates from its Minnetonka head office, a mock-Tudor castle, naturally.
But, I’d done some reading about Cargill last week (some sort of horrible kismet). And I recommend people check out this Beef Magazine (yes, it exists) interview with the company’s current president, Greg Page.
The article is seven years old, but fascinating. Page describes how Cargill is in essence a processor, and increasingly a holding company. It no longer owns the cattle it processes, which helps shift away liability for lawsuits like the one Smith will soon file. Page explains, “We own a very small percentage of the livestock we process. But we quite energetically oppose the tenets of laws designed to ban packer ownership. I find it hard to believe that the framers of the Constitution sat on a steamy day in Philadelphia and argued about who had the right to own a pig.”
And here is Page on the damage that specific pathogens do to the market for specific cuts of meat — referring to reduce demand for things like tongue because of mad cow disease:
“I’ll be a little harsh here and take that issue a step further and say that there is no demand for beef, but there is a demand for cuts of beef. The last year has taught us this. How many ranchers that you know have thought much about tongues, intestines and chuck short ribs lately? Not many. But since the discovery of BSE (bovine spongiform encephalopathy) in Japan last year, $20/head has been taken out of the value of a steer because of lost markets for those cuts.”
Another fascinating tidbit about Cargill from my reading about it. You know the light, crumbly, crystalline type of Kosher salt that is so good for cooking beef? You have Cargill, and only Cargill, to thank for it.
Most other food-grade salts are made by taking salty water and using vacuums to suck the excess fluid away. In the Alberger process, the salty water sits in enormous heated vats and then moves into special evaporating pans. The crystals end up taking the shape of little ziggurats. Other salt flakes are two-dimensional, whereas Alberger salt flakes are three-dimensional — and thus very light and good for cooking.
Alberger process salt is a staple in fast-food, used in virtually every product McDonald’s and Burger King and Wendy’s makes, because it amplifies flavor while imparting less salty taste. And Cargill owns its patent, purchased along with a salt manufacturer in 1997. It is the only company that makes it — 800 tons of it a day, in a special plant in Saint Claire, Michigan.
Just one reason that horrifically contaminated hamburger — from who knows what parts of how many cows plus how many additives — probably tasted pretty good.