The American Food Industry: An Incubator for Disaster

In the United States, the food production industry pervades everything we do. Meetings with friends are often accompanied by lunch or coffee, family dinners are treasured as time to bond with family, and mealtimes are regarded as sacred. So much of what we do revolves around food that imagining what would happen if that food were unsafe is a scary proposition.

But the reality proves that our food isn’t nearly as safe as we think it is. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 48 million people contract a foodborne illness annually, and approximately 3000 of those die [1]. E. coli and Salmonella often get the most press time of the foodborne illnesses, but they aren’t the only ones that are dangerous. In spite of the technological advancement in the United States, foodborne illness, especially in beef, persists in being a problem.

In fact, as the food production industry, especially the factory farming system that produces meat, becomes more consolidated (the top four beef suppliers control 80% of the United States’ beef supply [2]) and more industrialized, it becomes easier for contaminants in food to multiply and spread. In September 2011, a Listeriosis outbreak from cantaloupe grown in Colorado infected 123 people, killed 25 and caused a miscarriage [3].The USDA cites six instances of food recalls that occurred between October 1 and October 20 alone, with reasons ranging from misbranding and undeclared allergens to E. coli and Salmonella contamination [4].

The problem, of course, is not the recalls themselves. Recalls only mean that the companies, or the regulation bodies that oversee them, are catching their mistakes. The real problem is what can happen if the companies don’t see contamination until it’s too late. The beef industry is too closely consolidated to allow for any mistakes. In 1976, there were 1350 federally inspected beef slaughterhouses in the United States, and in 1996, 22 slaughterhouses accounted for 79% of nationally slaughtered cattle [5]. That means that a mistake in one of those slaughterhouses, or in one of the top four beef suppliers, could potentially reach a massive proportion of food products.

And, according to some, a mistake is imminent. Slaughterhouse and factory conditions have become notorious. Cattle often arrive at the slaughterhouse with smears of fecal matter on their hides, and while workers are very careful to avoid letting the meat get contaminated, there is the constant danger of contact with the fecal matter that is abundant on the cows causing E. coli contamination [6]. The flow of work is so fast and the number of carcasses so high that there is a great possibility of contamination going unnoticed.

There are several different schools of thought on what to do about rampant foodborne illness. One prominent opinion is the use of modern technology and chemistry to disinfect the meat that has been contaminated by the slaughtering process. One major proponent of this solution is Beef Products Inc., a company that has capitalized on the danger of foodborne illness. It invented the process of treating the most dangerous and traditionally unusable parts of meat with ammonia to kill pathogens [7]. This mixture of ammonia and unusable meat products is then added to ground beef in hamburgers, which the company says can help kill the pathogens in the rest of the meat. This ammonia-treated material is now in about 70% of hamburgers nationwide [8]. However, the effectiveness of this procedure came under fire when a study found high levels of contamination in Beef Products Inc.’s trimmings, which were being used by school lunch organizations. Between 2005 and 2009, their product tested positive for salmonella in 36 per 1000 tests, while other school lunch suppliers averaged nine positives per 1000 tests [9].

Other common practices include irradiating meat using gamma rays, x rays, and electron beams to kill bacteria. The USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service requires that any food treated this way must be clearly labeled to increase consumer awareness, though the same standard does not apply for meat treated with ammonia [10]. The USDA also says, though, that the process is completely safe for use in food. The radiation leaves no trace, and though it doesn’t suffice as the last word on destroying pathogens, it is a start.

Another opinion, however, is that the meat production system is broken, and that these sterilization techniques are only treating the symptoms rather than the causes. With so much potential for dangerous outbreaks, some feel the factory farming system itself needs to be changed. Much of the danger occurs behind closed doors and is based on the maximization of profit and the reduction of costs. According to The New York Times, many big slaughterhouses won’t sell to grinders unless they agree not to test the meat for E. coli [11]. These kinds of dealings within the industry itself undermine efforts to keep the products safe for consumers.

Fixing this problem, therefore, would require a restructuring of the food industry itself. In order to make meat safer for consumers and less likely to contain foodborne illness, slaughterhouses and factory farms would have to be split into smaller sections, or at least have more competition in terms of smaller farms and slaughterhouses run in rural areas by families instead of corporations. As it is, economic incentives make it nearly impossible for these smaller enterprises to compete with their well-established peers, but if incentives were given for these smaller, safer, and cleaner farms and slaughterhouses, the danger would be significantly mitigated.

If this kind of restructuring is not possible, the farming and slaughtering industries must be held to a higher standard and forced to act more responsibly. Consumers must demand more accurate information about actions like infusing unusable meat parts with ammonia in hamburgers and better safety standards in these farms and slaughterhouses. Only with an economic incentive like consumer choice could these profit and efficiency-based standards be changed.

If current patterns continue, the food industry will continue to consolidate into large companies with large varieties of products. Disease spreads easiest in close proximity and large numbers, the same conditions created by large factory farms and slaughterhouses. If consumers don’t demand higher quality products with better safety measures, the industry won’t improve, and foodborne illness will continue to be a major public danger.


[1] “CDC – CDC and Food Safety – Food Safety.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. N.p., 15 Aug. 2011. Web. 22 Oct. 2011. <>.

[2] Food, Inc.. Dir. Robert Kenner. Perf. Eric Schlosser. Magnolia Home Entertainment, 2009. Film.

[3] “CDC – Multistate Outbreak of Listeriosis Linked to Whole Cantaloupes from Jensen Farms, Colorado – Listeriosis.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. N.p., 18 Oct. 2011. Web. 22 Oct. 2011. <>.

[4] “Current Recalls & Alerts (Open Federal Recall Cases for FSIS) .” USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service Home . N.p., 21 Oct. 2011. Web. 22 Oct. 2011. <>.

[5] Mathews, Kenneth H. Jr., William F. Hahn, Kenneth E. Nelson, Lawrence A. Duewer, and Ronald A. Gustafson. “U.S. Beef Industry: Cattle Cycles, Price Spreads, and Packer Concentration: Beefpacker Concentration.” USDA Economic Research Service. April 1999.

[6] Moss, Michael. “The Burger That Shattered Her Life.” New York Times [New York City ] 03 Oct. 2009: n. pag. The New York Times. Web. 23 Oct. 2011.

[7] Moss, Michael. “Safety of Beef Processing Method Is Questioned.” New York Times [New York City ] 30 Dec. 2009: n. pag. The New York Times. Web. 23 Oct. 2011.

[8] Food, Inc.. Dir. Robert Kenner. Perf. Eric Schlosser. Magnolia Home Entertainment, 2009. Film.

[9] Moss, Michael. “Safety of Beef Processing Method Is Questioned.” New York Times [New York City ] 30 Dec. 2009: n. pag. The New York Times. Web. 23 Oct. 2011.

[10] “Irradiation and Food Safety.” USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service Home . United States Department of Agriculture, n.d. Web. 23 Oct. 2011. <>.

[11] Moss, Michael. “The Burger That Shattered Her Life.” New York Times [New York City ] 03 Oct. 2009: n. pag. The New York Times. Web. 23 Oct. 2011.

Chloe Hawker is a student at Carnegie-Mellon University.  Follow The Triple Helix Online on Twitter and join us on Facebook.