Mike McGraw’s recent investigation into “big beef” at The Kansas City Star begins with an interesting assumption: Regardless of their safety record, massive slaughterhouses and meatpacking plants introduce unacceptable systemic risk based on their size alone. Or, as he summarizes the argument, “When processing speed and volumes rise, so do the chances for contamination to be introduced and spread widely from its source to other meat inside the plant and at other plants that process it further.”
In particular McGraw focuses on mechanical tenderizing, a relatively new process in which tougher pieces of beef are penetrated with sharp metal blades to break up their fibers. The blades can also pick up E. coli from the meat’s exterior and ram it deep inside, where it’s less likely to be killed when the future steak is seared and served. Statistics are hard to come by, but because the practice is so widespread in the nation’s meat supply, the risk it introduces enjoys similar reach.
USDA data analyzed by The Star show that large plants until recently had higher rates of positive E. coli tests than smaller plants. Federal meat safety officials said the latest data show big plants are improving.
But the volume of meat a plant produces is a key issue. A USDA study published in March showed that from 2007 through 2011, E. coli positives at very small plants resulted, The Star found, in only 465,000 pounds of contaminated beef. A slightly lower rate of positive tests at large plants, however, produced more than 51 million pounds of contaminated beef.
Regardless, experts agree that most E. coli generally originates at larger slaughter plants, where pathogen-laden manure is a bigger problem because that’s where cattle are coming in from the feedlots.