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New York Times’ Cargill burger story turns local stomachs

If you read Sunday’s New York Times, you’re probably not ordering a hamburger today.

In a spectacular piece of journalism, the Times’ Michael Moss tracked an E. coli-laden patty back to the feces-filled slaughterhouses from whence it came. Moss’ investigation revealed a shocking system where the feds don’t require E. coli testing, and slaughterhouse often sell to grinders who agree not to test shipments.

There were not one but two local angles in the Times expose. The now-paralyzed victim, Stephanie Smith, lives in Cold Spring, Minnesota — about 75 miles away from the burger’s manufacturer, Minnetonka-based agribusiness giant Cargill, Inc.

So the investigation likely also turned a few stomachs at the Star Tribune. Last year, the area's biggest newsroom took a multi-part look at the food industry, including Cargill, but had not reported on the poisoning since December 2007, roughly two months after an outbreak that forced the recall of nearly 850,000 pounds of ground beef.

Despite that sinking feeling journalists get when someone else tops them on their beat, reporters Chris Serres and Matt McKinney had nothing but praise for the Times piece. Serres pronounced it “terrific” and McKinney called it “an extraordinary feat.”

These guys are two of the Strib’s best reporters, and among the thicker-skinned, so they entertained my uncomfortable question: how did you guys miss such a big one in your own backyard?

Just to get the conspiracy theory out of the way: No one at the Strib is under orders to go easy on Cargill.

“No one would have prevented us from doing a story like that,” says Serres, who has been iconoclastic enough to criticize his own labor union's insufficient militancy as harshly as management's misdeeds.

“Absolutely not,” agrees McKinney, the business section’s food and agriculture reporter.

Although the Strib’s December 2008 series “Our Hungry Planet” did not give the agri-behemoth the same gut pain the Times piece will, it detailed the company’s secret, oligopolistic ways amid soaring commodity costs.

Explains McKinney, “We were looking more at what was happening with prices. We had lots of targets there, and this [food safety] wasn’t really a part of that.”

McKinney’s last look on the incident — Questions swirl around recent rise in E. coli cases — was updated Dec. 1, 2007. An accompanying chart showed that through 2005, E. coli infections had fallen from 1996-2002 peaks, though there was a slight uptick in the most recent year.

The story featured this quote, which doesn’t look great in hindsight:

"It's too easy to bash industry, to say they're just producing dirty meat," said Michael Osterholm, a former state epidemiologist and a professor in the school of public health at the University of Minnesota. "It's not that straightforward."

Osterholm was pushing irradiation, an E. coli-killing approach not mentioned in the Times piece. He also blamed consumers and microwave ovens for undercooked meats, even though the Times piece casts doubt on temperatures as the ultimate solution.

McKinney’s piece offered other perspectives, including the Bush administration’s refusal to mandate recalls, increased stress on animals, and the bacteria’s omnipresence — though packers and grinders were not targeted. Earlier, he'd written a piece noting Cargill had refused to pay victims' medical expenses.

“I think the reason the story was on the Sunday cover of the New York Times is because it was bringing things to light that weren’t well-known,” McKinney says. “Perhaps Osterholm’s comments would be different today, but it wasn’t meant to excuse; he thinks irradiation is the best solution to a potentially dangerous problem. He’s not omniscient.”

When McKinney’s piece ran, Smith, then a 20-year-old children’s dance instructor, remained in a physician-induced coma. (The St. Cloud Times profiled the awoken patient this March.) In the 20 months that passed, the Times littered the landscape with Freedom of Information Act requests, going around the feds and manufacturers to fill in redacted information.

A byline check shows this is Moss’ first piece since May; he’s done just five stories in 2009, all on food safety. Strib investigators should be expected to produce similarly outstanding work, and managers must put them in a position to do so. Still, I doubt that have anyone at the paper has that few bylines, especially in a single topic area.

For example, according to Strib online records, McKinney has had 88 bylines this year; Serres, 80.

It should be noted that the Strib hasn’t been slouches in covering to food safety. Reporter David Shaffer and other staffers aggressively covered peanut-borne salmonella earlier this year, and the Strib had no peer in covering meatpacker workers paralyzed by aerosolized pig brains.

Sure, neither of those offenders were as massive as Cargill, but sometimes, you just get beat.

By the way, the Pioneer Press’ Ben Garvin, working as a freelancer, shot the terrific photos for the Times piece — his first Sunday cover, he says.

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Comments (10)

The purpose of irradiation is to render fecal material in the meat inert & safe for consumption. How about we just have clean processing at a pace that provides safe product?

While I have no doubt that the folks on the editorial side are gnashing teeth over getting trounced by a national on this one, I'd bet the folks on the business side are thrilled it wasn't the Strib that broke this. I'll be interested to see whether and to what extent the Strib (and PiPress) follows up on the story and expands it both within and beyond Cargill.

In a just world, this story would start numerous Congressional investigations, spur changes in food handling laws and change many entrenched ag policies. I'm not willing to bet that we live in a just world.

In unrelated news (not!), I have decided to drag out the meat grinder attachment to our KitchenAid and grind my own burger from whole muscle. I have much more faith in my own (and my wife's) HACCP training than I do in Big Beef's.

Thanks David, its great to get this sort of disconnect out there. The steady march of groundbreaking stories based in MN and originating in the Times is troubling. (Nature recently conducted a profile of Grassley's researcher, the one upending conflict of interest reporting in medicine: he took his tip from a law written by John Marty. Nothing on that in our paper, however.)

The pictures were fantastic, if heartbreaking, and the piece had a nicely Columbo-esque quality to it. Think of it: a Sam's Club-sold, Cargill-Manufactured, burger purchased in rural MN that came from three cities and a pinch or two from um, Uruguay.

But where this story didn't go far enough is to ask a harder question: Will we ever be able to wash enough dung off of burgers that are produced in plants the size of four football fields?

Michael Pollan should have been in this piece, someone to question the entire premise of production that chooses different meats from across the continent to produce the desired meat to fat content at the cheapest possible price.

It is the scale of modern processed food production that gets us in trouble, not the washing protocols at whatever ginormous anonymous slaughterhouse. The piece should have asked how long it will be until the scale of the current enterprise forces new laws bringing back the local butcher. I say, pay two bucks more a pound and get the grass fed stuff out of Cannon Falls.

One other problem was the hed. Better title: "The Frankenburger that Shattered her LIfe"

Also last year the Strib led off that series with a round table discussion on food production that included executives from Cargill, Lunds and General Mills. It was telling that no advocate of sustainability was anywhere near that table. The softball questions and treatment of these corporate masters of irresponsible agriculture by the Strib editorial staff was inexcusable. Apparently the future of our industrial ag model includes expanding the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, raising more meat with growth hormones in fetid, confined, antibiotic necessary conditions while continuing to ignore the sustainability of organic farming. No, I belileve that the Strib is no longer capable of challenging these Minnesota corporate agrigiants.

A seemingly obvious question: what steps do chain grocery stores (Cub, Rainbow, etc) take to ensure the quality of the meat they sell? Put another way, do those grocery stores require that their hamburger providers conduct E coli testing all along the hamburger manufacturing process?

Back in the mid-1990s, Minnesota Farmers Union was trying to raise awarness about federal legislation to loosen restrictions on health inspections in slaughterhouses, and on the then-proposed use of irradiation to sterilize meat. If you go back a bit, you'll find legilsation about HAACCP - "Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points" - that allows slaughterhouses to self-inspect. Byproduct of HAACCP: Fewer FDA inspectors in processing plants. Originally - and this sounds wacky, I know - the material used for irradiating meat was a waste material from the military. Don't know if that's still the case, but I was horrified by both situations when I worked on these issues.

Most appalling to me is that the USA used to have clean meat packing plants. Corporations ended that. No one misunderstands how fast a line can move like someone wearing a suit and tie.

The size of our meatpacking plants is not the problem. Our workers are not the problem. The problem is a marketplace that rewards executives who cut corners on food safety when instead they should be turning these unindicted front office felons over to the proper authorities.

Start by revitalizing OSHA. A plant that's running at a speed that's safe for workers is probably going to produce wholesome food products. Then impose mandatory semi-annual unannounced USDA inspections on all meat packers. Give inspectors the power to shut down lines and, if warranted, entire facilities.

You only get safe food when you make safe food your number one priority. Slipshod inspections makes it too easy for the cornercutters to win Wall Street's favor.

I have a hard time believing the size is not part of the problem. Pollan writes about livestock living within or amidst vast lagoons of manure.

Good point, Paul Scott. Michael Pollan should have been part of the story. He has written about the virulent form of e coli that was the culprit for the young woman in the story. That is the O157:H7 strain. Apparently it was unknown before 1982 and is found in animals fed on grain in large factory farms, and not in pasture grass fed animals.

So testing is one answer, but dealing with the factory farms is another part of the puzzle.