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The Meat Mob Muscles In
By: Merritt Clifton
From ANIMAL PEOPLE June 1997 edition
Reprinted by Permission - 24 April 2003
The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine puts the cost of meat-related degenerative illness to the U.S. economy at about $40 billion per year. Meat-related acute illness raises the total annual cost close to the $50 billion per year estimated cost of smoking. Meat-related acute illness includes the whole range of bacterial infections and poisonings associated with contaminated meat. These, as illustrated by the tragic deaths of four youngsters from eating Jack-in-the-Box hamburgers in January 1993, hit mainly children and the aged.
The first major update of the USDA meat inspection statutes in 90 years finally began phase-in, after more than 10 years of hearings, litigation, and legislation, on February 2, 1997. During the long debate, Americans learned--if paying attention--that USDA assurance of meat safety is relative, not absolute. The low-end estimate from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is that food-borne bacteria, almost entirely from meat and animal byproducts, kills 9,000 Americans per year and causes at least 33 million episodes of nonfatal acute illness.
Thus bacterial contamination of meat officially killed 6,000 more Americans from 1990 through 1996, a seven-year span, as were killed in the Vietnam War from the deployment of ground troops in 1965 through the end of the draft in 1972. Meat contamination casualties cost the U.S. as much as $9.4 billion a year in immediate medical costs, plus $13 million a year to cope with longterm care of the estimated one million victims of meat contaminations who suffer longterm disability.
The CDCP recognizes these as low-end estimates because the symptoms of food-related illnesses often go unrecognized. If underreporting occurs in the U.S. at the rate that Health Canada foodborne disease chief researcher Jeff Wilson believes it does in Canada, the actual totals could be eight times higher. The U.S. toll could then be slightly higher, over four years, than U.S. combat deaths during World War II.
Preliminary testing to assess the need for e-coli and salmonella contamination standards in 1992 discovered e-coli in 99% of the chickens tested and a third of the red meat slaughterhouses. The USDA believes salmonella enteritidis still afflicts as many as 45% of all U.S. egg-producing flocks, whose "spent hens" may nonetheless end up in the chicken soup often used as a folk remedy for common illness.
Yet even the biggest of the 6,186 federally inspected U.S. meat plants won't have to test their output regularly for e-coli and salmonella contamination until January 1998, one year after testing requirement was announced. Testing won't be required at every federally inspected slaughterhouse and meatpacking plant until July 1, 2000--and the federal rules don't necessarily apply to all of the 2,893 slaughterhouses and meatpacking plants that are inspected by state authorities.
Further, the new USDA rules do not require testing for several other forms of bacterial contamination that are reportedly on the rise, including Staphylococcus aureaus, the reputed deadliest food-borne bacteria, and campylobacter, found in the guts of poultry, pigs, and cattle about 10 times as often as e-coli, according to recent Health Canada research.
Already, the USDA Food Safety Inspection Service records more than 500,000 meat contamination incidents per year in slaughter and packing plants, despite the certainty that the inspection staff of just 6,300 is spread thin. As of June 1996, the Food Safety Inspection Service had left unfilled 800 fulltime jobs and 570 part-time jobs, for a 19% vacancy rate in slaughterhouses and a 15% vacancy rate in processing plants, resulting in more than a million unfulfilled tasks per year-- including "checking for product adulteration and unsafe handling, unsafe buildings, equipment malfunctions and failure to separate raw or dirty products from food that is cooked or clean," said the Government Accountability Project.
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