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Investigation reveals safety issues in beef processing plants

December 20, 2012
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beef processingAn investigation by the Kansas City Star has exposed serious safety issues related to the U.S. beef processing industry. A team of journalists spent a year looking into the current state of affairs at two of the four biggest beef suppliers in the United States and revealed a stark picture, involving fecal contamination, non-therapeutic use of antibiotics in livestock and safety risks associated with mechanical tenderizing techniques.

The investigation, which resulted in dozens of articles and a significant number of graphic images, found that just four processing companies account for 87 percent of the total amount of beef packed in the United States.

One of the biggest problems that the newspaper exposed is the numerous examples of beef contaminated with feces at big plants, even though the U.S. beef processing industry claims it is safer than ever. Fecal contamination dramatically increases the risk of being infected with E.coli, bacteria that lives in the intestines of livestock, if contaminated beef is consumed.

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Under the Freedom of Information Act the Kansas City Star obtained federal inspection records which mention hundreds of examples of contaminated meat just over the past two years, at four major beef slaughter plants in Kansas, Nebraska and Colorado. In one of the examples, inspectors reported finding a large number of carcasses contaminated with feces, while an inspector noted that at one beef plant the amount of fecal contamination was so great they could not keep up, the newspaper reported.

One of the causes of contamination is believed to be the use of mechanical techniques to make the beef more tender. In the process, the meat is pierced with automated blades to tenderize it but while doing this the machine can also pick up E.coli from the surface and drive it to the inside. When the beef is cooked, the bacteria on the surface is very likely to be killed but bacteria in the center of the meat can survive and cause diseases after being consumed.

Typically, consumers and supermarket managers cannot tell if the beef has been mechanically tenderized. A study conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 2008 showed that 90 percent of beef producers used the technique at least in some form and there is no requirement that this should be labeled, the Star revealed.

Another serious issue that the Star exposed is the extensive use of antibiotics. Cattle are frequently fed a cocktail of drugs that can contribute to increasing beef plant efficiency but they can also be harmful to human health. For instance, almost 90 percent of the livestock is fed drugs belonging to the beta blockers category, which makes the animals grow faster, but those drugs can affect human hearts. In addition, antibiotics that livestock are fed on could enable the development and spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria in people.

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