Deadly Threat Extends to Our Burgers

Deadly Threat Extends to Our Burgers

November 2, 2001
Los Angeles Times
The Threat Extends to Our Burgers

By BRIAN HALWEIL, Brian Halweil is a research associate at the
Worldwatch Institute, a nonprofit environmental and public policy research
institute in Washington D.C

Secretary of Agriculture Ann Veneman recently cited her department's success
at containing foot-and-mouth disease as proof that the U.S. government is
prepared to respond to any terrorist attacks on the food we eat. But like so
many official statements during the current round of anthrax cases, her
optimism may be sadly misplaced.

Consider one particularly vulnerable link in our food chain: the modern meat
processing plant. The typical plant can process millions of pounds of ground
beef or hot dogs in a few days.

In comparison to a bioterrorism target such as a water treatment plant, meat
processing plants have virtually no security. Further, many of the nation's
slaughterhouses are staffed with poorly trained and poorly paid migrant
workers, often with little documentation or without background checks. The
typical plant turns over its entire staff each year, virtually guaranteeing
that no one really knows who is working there.

Meatpacking is the nation's most life-threatening occupation. The rate of
serious injury--losing a limb or an eye--is five times the national average.
In 1999, more than one out of four of the nation's 150,000 meatpacking
workers suffered a job-related injury or illness. Yet in many ways, these
people--and the conditions at these plants--are the first line of defense
against food-borne illnesses.

Someone working in a plant could easily obtain a sample of salmonella or E.
coli or other life-threatening agent from a plant's meat inspection lab and
use this for large-scale contamination.

A terrorist could contaminate a huge amount of store-ready meat with a
strategically placed sample of E. coli or salmonella or listeria. Unlike
anthrax, which is difficult to obtain and prepare, these bioweapons are
readily available.

Studies in the Oct. 18 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine
demonstrate that government regulations fail to guarantee the safety of our

One study shows that one in five samples of ground meat obtained in U.S.
supermarkets carried antibiotic-resistant salmonella.

Another study found that more than half of the chickens bought from 26
supermarkets in Georgia, Maryland, Minnesota and Oregon carried resistant
forms of the sometimes fatal enterococcus bacterium.

A gradual gutting of the nation's meat inspection work force and authority
in recent decades means that regulations and measures don't catch even the
unintentional introductions of these contaminants. In the first nine months
of 2001, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced 60 recalls totaling
nearly 30 million pounds of meat.

From a biowarfare perspective, the easiest targets are genetically similar
populations of organisms for which a single bug could easily infect the
majority. Consider that 90% of the nation's dairy cows are closely related

The nation's largest pork producer, Smithfield, controls 12 million hogs
that are virtual clones of each other.

The factory farms that confine tens of thousands of animals in close and
unhygienic quarters resemble the proverbial sitting duck.
While public awareness on matters of safety is so high, we have a perfect
opportunity to clean up the food system from within, creating more hygienic
living conditions for livestock, placing restrictions on antibiotic use in
feed and providing more humane working conditions for slaughterhouse

In the past the public health argument for cleaning up U.S. food chains has
repeatedly failed to inspire politicians to support the changes we need to
protect all Americans from contaminated food.

If we are lucky, today's rallying cries for homeland security will finally
lead to meaningful actions to secure our food supplies from the threats of
both accidental and terrorist epidemics.

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