What the free market can’t do

WHAT THE FREE MARKET CAN’T DO…. The NYT had a striking piece over the weekend about inspections and standards of ground beef. It may not sound like an interesting subject, but believe me, it’s well worth reading.

The Times, for example, highlighted the plight of Stephanie Smith, a 22-year-old Minnesota woman who, after eating a grilled hamburger, was left in a coma for nine weeks. She later emerged paralyzed, her nervous system ravaged. The article explains that Smith “ran out of luck in a food-safety game of chance whose rules and risks are not widely known.”

Meat companies and grocers have been barred from selling ground beef tainted by the virulent strain of E. coli known as O157:H7 since 1994, after an outbreak at Jack in the Box restaurants left four children dead. Yet tens of thousands of people are still sickened annually by this pathogen, federal health officials estimate, with hamburger being the biggest culprit. Ground beef has been blamed for 16 outbreaks in the last three years alone, including the one that left Ms. Smith paralyzed from the waist down. This summer, contamination led to the recall of beef from nearly 3,000 grocers in 41 states.

Ms. Smith’s reaction to the virulent strain of E. coli was extreme, but tracing the story of her burger, through interviews and government and corporate records obtained by The New York Times, shows why eating ground beef is still a gamble. Neither the system meant to make the meat safe, nor the meat itself, is what consumers have been led to believe.

Ground beef is usually not simply a chunk of meat run through a grinder. Instead, records and interviews show, a single portion of hamburger meat is often an amalgam of various grades of meat from different parts of cows and even from different slaughterhouses. These cuts of meat are particularly vulnerable to E. coli contamination, food experts and officials say. Despite this, there is no federal requirement for grinders to test their ingredients for the pathogen.

The frozen hamburgers that the Smiths ate, which were made by the food giant Cargill, were labeled “American Chef’s Selection Angus Beef Patties.” Yet confidential grinding logs and other Cargill records show that the hamburgers were made from 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.

Using a combination of sources — a practice followed by most large producers of fresh and packaged hamburger — allowed Cargill to spend about 25 percent less than it would have for cuts of whole meat.

In 2007, in the wake of highly publicized E. coli outbreaks, the Bush administration resisted calls for stronger federal regulations and instead created a … wait for it … “food safety czar.” Very little changed, and the problem persists.

Indeed, relevant companies are doing what the industry is expected to do — exploiting loopholes to cut corners and save costs. If policymakers simply let the free market guide the food-safety process, the results include people like Stephanie Smith, a young woman who was nearly killed for engaging in high-risk behavior: eating a hamburger for dinner.

The answer, then, is a political one — federal officials need to intervene to do what American consumers cannot do for themselves, in this case, imposing stricter safety regulations. For all the Teabaggers/Fox News hatred for government regulation — “I don’t want Obama’s hands in my hamburger!” — a story like this one should turn the anti-government crusade on its head.

Two years ago, Rick Perlstein coined the phrase “E. Coli Conservatism.” The importance of rejecting that ideology keeps getting stronger.