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If You Thought Soylent Green Was Bad, Try Hamburger

Ruth Miller

For years, I’ve apathetically used the phrase “It’s in the water” to write off the stupid actions of various people. Until recently, I wasn’t the only one with this cavalier attitude towards the food supply. So when news broke that a cow infected with Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy, commonly known as mad cow disease, had been found in the United States, people suddenly took an interest in their food.

Gluttony and avarice are a deadly combination. In the interest of its own survival, the meat packing industry has earned a reputation of recklessly cutting costs to produce a more palatable product. Two books that outline these atrocities of the meat packing industry are Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle (1906) and Eric Schlosser’s more recent Fast Food Nation (2002). In combination, they illustrate how little has changed in the last century.

By running production lines at increasingly ridiculous speeds, and by staffing employees with stagnant or decreasing hourly wages, the meat packing industry increases its volume while expenses remain approximately the same. To keep up with the speed of production, employees are given small, repetitive tasks. Risks associated with high production speeds include not only decreased safety of the employees, but also easier spreading of E. coli 0157:H7, a bacterium native to the fecal matter in an animals’ intestines. All it takes to infect the meat with this bacterium is for the worker to slip with their knife on one of the hundred cuts they make within an hour. This is just one of the reasons factories must slow down their production speed to prepare meat for exportation to meet foreign food safety regulations.

More pertinent to the current scare is how the cattle are cared for while they await processing. Years ago, the cattle industry made the transition to grain from grass in their feedlots as a method of saving money. The increase in grain prices has encouraged the use of cheaper, higher protein feed. Prior to 1997, about 75 percent of the cattle in the United States were routinely fed the remains of dead cattle and sheep, as well as dead cats and dogs purchased from animal shelters. These practices were only banned by the FDA to stop the spread of mad cow disease. Until December 2003, “downers,” or cattle that were too sick to walk, were allowed to be processed.

As encouraging as it may be that the industry is making a few steps in the right direction, they still allow dead pigs and horses to be fed to cattle. Not only can dead poultry be fed to cattle, but dead cattle can be fed to poultry. Cattle blood is still allowed in cattle feed. Cows are not carnivores. They have four stomachs to digest products with a high cellulose content, not protein.

In the interest of reassuring the public, some groups have taken an interest in exposing foods to radiation as a safety measure. I’m not going to debate the benefits of nuclear science; instead, I’ll pose the question: if we have nothing to fear from irradiated meat, why euphemize? “Cold pasteurization” is the official USDA term for exposure to gamma radiation, and is accompanied by an under-marketed, happy, green symbol. If this technique is safe, which is yet to be proven, it would only allow the processing plants to speed production and become even more careless with our food supply.

It’s unreasonable to expect the government to do its job in ensuring USDA regulations are being met inside processing plants. With the strong movement toward deregulation, and the favoritism played by the current administration, nothing will change on its own.

Other methods of rearing cattle and packing meat do exist. Australia, the only major beef producing nation that has yet to see a case of mad cow disease, feeds its cattle grass, saving its grain for hungry people. Some small ranches and processing plants in the United States employ safer measures than those of the larger processors. These fall under the headline “organic,” and might just be what America needs.

I’ve never imagined life to be possible as a vegetarian, though I can respect those with the strength to do so. After beginning this article, I went to Pour House for half-price burger night. I don’t claim to be an activist; I’d rather leave that to the professionals. As an average consumer, I can be concerned about what I’m eating. I encourage the dining services of MIT to take an interest as well. If they subsidize organic foods as heavily as everything else, they might be surprised what choices their patrons make.