The Price of a Taste for Beef

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The Sunday New York Times of a little over a week ago (Sunday, 4 October 2009) has a chilling account of the effects of a particularly virulent strain of E.Coli on a young woman in the midwest. Ordinarily a vegetarian, she consumed a hamburger at a family barebecue, eating a burger, prepared by her mother. Mom used frozen patties obtained presumably from a local retailer (actually, it was Sam’s Club, which, for some really really lucky American citizens is a local retailer) and supplied by Cargill, a humungous conglomerate. How big? It’s only the largest privately held company in the United States, with sales of over a hundred billion dollars a year.

The young woman, otherwise healthy, robust, physically fit and active, is now paralyzed from the waist down, with kidneys in a very delicate condition and constantly threatening to shut down as a result. The cause of her present state was a disease, caused in rare instances by the ingestion of especially virulent strains of E. Coli, called hemolytic uremic syndrome, which occurs in from five to ten percent of illnesses caused by the pathogen. The effect in this young woman was, obviously, catastrophic.

There is no doubt that the disease was caused by one of the patties of a product Cargill labels “American Chef’s Selection Angus Beef Patties.” It seems, and the exhaustive deconstruction of the sources of the ingredients appears in this article, that it is mainly beef, it is true. However, as one might suppose, especially if one is of my generation, and in his or her late 50s or early 60s (or older, for sure) it is not meat ground from a single piece of beef selected by the customer or butcher, and ground on the spot in the store where purchased—and I do not mean to suggest that such simple methodology eliminates the possibility of ending up contaminated food.

Rather, the Cargill product (whose product label contains a litany of, nothing else to call them but, lies—that’s my supposition, but I feel safe making it: no chef of any nationality selected anything, except insofar as he might have a title connected with his corporate employment that, for conveniences such as this, require he or she be called “chef;” “angus” as a designation of a kind or type of beef has been so denatured and compromised in use that it is meaningless; and as the article states, the patties in question also include bread crumbs and spices in the formulation) is the result of the mixture of already ground beef from at least four major sources, at least one of them located in Uruguay. The patties are not whole beef parts ground up, but only partially so, mixed with what the industry calls trimmings, wherein by several different processes the extremely high fat content bits of cattle parts in question are treated to reduce that fat content to a designated level. These bits are then ground up in massive volume and the end ingredient packaged and shipped with the fat content designated. Cargill combines the ground products from its various sources to produce a patty that has an “ideal” fat content of 26.6% (in case you’re interested).

Incidentally, it is only after all the ingredients are combined that Cargill takes any steps at all to test the product for contamination. Otherwise they depend on the assurances of their suppliers (and in turn, up the chain, their suppliers) that the meat in question has been tested. Therefore it is virtually impossible for Cargill to know the source of any contamination should they find it—or should some hapless and unlucky consumer “find” it. Only good old deductive detective work long after the fact can maybe provide an answer, or point to one, though without the conclusiveness that makes any one of us feel comfortable. And, of course, Cargill is not in the business of doing such detective work. That’s left to government agencies, who do it as they see fit within the constraints of limited budgets (and mindful, as one of the USDA officials is quoted as saying, of the entire industry, and the impact of any interdictive or punitive actions on businesses supplying the consumer, and not merely mindful, in singular and focused fashion, on the simple matter of public health), or by the few news gathering, investigating and reporting organizations left to us—like The New York Times—who still have the resources and the will to look into this nasty bit of work.

Like the old saying about legislation and sausages, there are two things you don’t want to witness: the making of laws, or the making of hot dogs. I would strongly recommend a third, and that is, not even to read the account, which is quite detailed in the Times piece, of how so much of America gets its beef burgers. The burgers in question, incidentally, cost $1.30 a pound to manufacture by Cargill, who meet a cost of one dollar a pound for the actual beef ingredients.

I don’t know what Sam’s Club (where, it indeed turns out, the unfortunate victim’s nearly fatal lunch derived at retail), a division of Walmart, pays Cargill for the boxed products. There is no product available at this time on the Sam’s Club website with the name of the burgers that paralyzed poor Ms. Smith of Minnesota for whatever life is left to her. However there is currently a “customer favorite” [sic] 100% Organic Classic Beef Burgers, packed in a box of 32 four-ounce burgers, at a cost of $60.22. That’s a few cents more than $7.50 a pound for hamburger patties, frozen in a box, for those of you not disposed to do the math in your head or wherever you might.

These available burgers are guaranteed 100% from grass-fed beef, with no hormones or antibiotics administered. Sounds pretty good so far, and sourced in Australia and Uruguay. There is no mention of the breed of cattle. There would seem to be a propensity to “not go there.” “Angus,” is, after all, an actual breed of cattle, and the one preferred for any number of reasons that needn’t be belabored here, as it has been in so many other places. A lot of effort, suffice it to say, has gone into instilling a sense in Americans that “Angus” is a superior breed that, by logic, produces a superior kind of beef. No comment. For Wikipedia’s take on “Angus,” see here

The burgers that caused the illness were packed, according to the Times’s account, 18 to the box. No mention of grass-fed, etc. But, using some simple rules of the marketplace, such as economies of scale, I have to suppose that proportionately, these questionable burgers were even more costly than the current product on offer.

“Grass-fed,” “hormone-free,” yada yada or not, it is fair to assume that the same slaughtering, butchering and processing practices come into play as did in the case of the contaminated products that caused so much mayhem in 2007. Even if you remember this case, as it did make the national news back then, and I do not but only vaguely recall it (speaking of recalls, it seems there are so many involving the U.S. food industry that it’s a little unfair to expect anyone, except people who make their living preventing such outbreaks that result in recalls, or who track these things as a profession, to remember any incident—I happen to wonder why any U.S. citizen in his right mind eats anything that comes out of a cardboard box or a cellophane bag imprinted with a national brand, and especially if purchased in a frozen state) it is safe to say this much about how we get informed. We should not be surprised to discover, as in this instance, that it takes two years of dedicated news and fact gathering, and other investigative measures, including the interviewing of both cooperative and statutorily non-participating sources, to glean the facts and form them into a coherent and, as I suggested at the start, horrifying underlying story.

This essay is entitled “The Price” to mean several senses of the word, of course, but adhering strictly to matters of cost—as in the exchange of legal tender for the goods—let us consider the alternatives available to us. That is, alternatives to finding inexpensive alternatives for favorites in our diets.

Let us just accept for the sake of this argument that a preponderance of Americans are lovers of beef. Before you respond to me with some snarky remarks, and attendant attitude, about how you personally are a virtual whited sepulcher when it comes to red meat consumption, I will cite only two statistics from this article. One, about the output of just one of the beef processors (there were four suppliers feeding ingredients to Cargill), indicates that they produce seven million pounds a week of their product. Their “product” is the output of the following steps. They take “trimmings,” consisting almost entirely of fat, and process and render them so that they can deliver to Cargill as one of the already processed ingredients in their ground beef products what they call “fine lean textured beef” at a cost of 20 cents a pound more than actual ground beef. I will only take a moment to mention two matters of fact about this company’s product: their process includes treating the animal parts they are processing—I refuse to call this “meat”—with ammonia. The other fact is that one major user of this company’s products are the producers of hamburger meat for the federal school lunch program.

The other fact involves American Foodservice (a company that supplies food products—well, one food product; their motto is “The Best in Burgers”), which bills itself as “one of the industry’s top ground beef processors.” Doesn’t burn too much mental energy to conclude that there are several “top” ground beef processors, which means we are dealing with arithmetic, if not logarithmic, progression of the numbers involved. Anyway American Foodservice, which apparently was not involved in the Cargill product that paralyzed Ms. Smith, grinds 365 million pounds a year.

That’s only two companies. They each produce a million pounds of ground beef or “textured” beef per day. Multiply that by four (for a quarter-pounder, assuming that great innovation of the 20th century was pure beef) and you’ve got eight million hamburgers a day from just two companies. Enough for a burger for every citizen of New York City proper.

So, admitting there’s the alternative of a quarter pounder (or the much newer product, a premium and higher quality product, if one is to believe the marketing, a third-pound “gourmet” burger at McDonald’s, the universal touchstone and icon of America’s love of beef—I chuckle as I add this, but these new, bigger, better, more expensive items are called, of course, “Angus Burgers”), which you buy, cooked and ready to eat of course, at a cost of $3.99 per burger. It’s their most expensive item, and it’s unlikely I will ever eat one. Satisfy yourself with this account in USAToday, from just a couple of weeks ago. I mean it is America’s newspaper, what better source?: Multiply that number by three, and we have the jolly fact to contemplate that for a mere $11.97 a pound, you get not only the meat, but the cheese and other accouterments, the packaging, the preparation by underpaid food handlers, the friendly service, the esthetics of McDonald’s architecture. The whole quintessential American experience (and at least as far as the esthetics are concerned, I know this is also true of Europe, where prices may vary, and I know that the beef itself will contain no hormones or antibiotics, because it can’t by law).

Incidentally, a quarter-pounder, the price of which I checked locally, in Cambridge MA, as of the Sunday of the article I alluded to, costs $3.49 with cheese. For further context, I’ll note as well that a famous Big Mac (the cornerstone of McD’s hegemony in the realm of meeting America’s meat jones) is also $3.49 (it wasn’t worth the time to research the amount of meat, by weight, in a Big Mac). There is a formidable bargain to be taken note of as well, in that a so-called “Double Quarter-Pounder” (which, according to the old math I learned in the 1950s would make it a half-pound of whatever it is they use for animal products at good old Mickey D’s) is a mere $4.29, a bargain. Consider that a double-quarter-pounder gives you a pound of meat for $8.58 a pound, only a dollar more, per pound, than that “customer favorite” at Sam’s Club, which arrives in several days after placing the order, and in a frozen state, and without the bun, garnishes, sauces, wrapping, packaging, bag, and general conviviality and feel-good vibe of a bedrock American experience in dining.

Having said all this, on the inspiration of the story of the pathos of Ms. Smith’s fate at eating what could be a fatal hamburger indeed, my purpose is not to analyze the comparative costs per pound of questionable exempla of that phenomenon known as a hamburger.

I could as easily have spoken of a porterhouse steak at Peter Luger’s, without the manipulative undercurrents of a tragic instance of food contamination. God (and the kitchen help and wait staff) knows what happens in the food preparation areas of Peter Luger’s. Some journalist or team of them will one day, if they have not already, follow the no doubt equally intricate trail followed by a steer from a breeding pen, through the feed lots (or pastures surrounded by a sylvan landscape, if that makes you feel better about all this), to the purveyors who deliver the product to the docks at the steak houses of the rich and famous. And in its own way, it may be equally sordid and discomfiting. Though I am sure the features of that story would entail a different set of specific facts.

No matter. Beef is beef. And the American taste for beef is predicated not only on what happens to the animal once it’s slaughtered (whether that act is performed in Kansas, or Australia, or Uruguay is again of no consequence), but on what we do to produce it for presentation to the knacker. Michael Pollan, my pathologically perseverating personal nemesis, has, with several other writers, covered this ground (and even more broadly, as the implications of grain-fed, i.e., corn-fed, protocols for beef cattle reverberate to every shelf of every pantry in America, and from those shelves to the tables at which we serve ourselves and our children).

In the end, what we have done with our taste for beef—and I have it too, I don’t deny it, though I do deny myself beef for dining all but once or twice a week, if that, and it’s beef that doesn’t come from Cargill—is alter the landscape. Not only the literal landscapes of the United States, and all beef-trading nations with which we do business, but the virtual landscapes of our sense of what constitutes good food that is good for us. We have curtailed choice, at the same time we keep raising the stakes of of avoiding the kind of contamination that can cripple, if not kill us.

There is a counter movement, for sure, but as long as beef is affordable, the effects of change, assuming it can occur, will be agonizingly slow. These are elastic terms economically; we’ve long had a fatal romance with tobacco, the use of which, though on the wain, is still enacted by millions and millions of Americans—I’d say the more obvious addiction of the sot weed only adumbrates the more subtle addiction to an ever narrowing range of foods that we ingest for sustenance, but eat for the rhapsodic pleasures of consumption—and in New York City—where I am at the moment I am typing these words—depending on the brand, a pack of cigarettes could cost $9.27, remarkably close to the cost of two double quarter-pounders. Though, to be truthful, a pack of Parliaments presumably would allow a far greater number of pleasurable moments than even the slowest eater could induce; and the pack of Parliaments in and of itself won’t kill you, and the statistical chances of long-term, if not mortal, damage is infinitesimal compared to the risk of biting into that one bit of burger that has some lurking pathogen. Further, of course, getting people to stop smoking, which involves in so many instances long term agony, and has been slow so as to give the relativity of speed new meaning to the extent that the serious effort has been ongoing for 50 years… I would predict it will take even longer to wean Americans from beef, whether it’s good beef, bad beef, anything but fake beef.

Whatever is required to change our eating habits, I am sure it will not only be the cost factor that effects the transformation. $9.27 is a far cry from the 25 cents a pack I used to pay for Camels (when there was only one version of that brand) back in 1965, but the increase in price I think barely outpaces the rate of decline in the value of the dollar. The purchasing power of the dollar has diminished by a factor of 6.82 times between 1965 and 2008 (the last year my on-line source afforded as a base). So that pack of Parliaments should cost about two bucks. But it costs over four times that. And, for one, have to wonder, who’s getting the additional seven bucks?

It’s more likely the answer to that question is more accessible, after prodigious effort, and with a reporter’s credentials in one’s wallet to open the right doors for finding out, than it would be to find out two things involving our taste for beef, and the apparently concomitant taste we have for not paying a lot for it, or anything else.

Consider this, as I take you back to McDonald’s for a moment. They have been, for a while, offering the so-called dollar menu, where a selection of regular menu items—I believe there are eight or nine of them, including sandwiches or boxes of nuggets, comprised of parts of what formerly were living animals, as well as beverages and dessert—carry a cost of one U.S. dollar. That would be at it’s current purchasing power (which means these items in 1965 would cost about 15 cents apiece, which is probably what they did cost—Hey! Economics works! Sometimes!). That would also be absent the taxes, etc.

Among the McDonald’s Dollar Menu bargains is a double cheeseburger, which I note from anecdotal voluntary testimony on-line on a variety of blogs, the McDonald’s website, etc., is considered the gold standard nationally for a quality burger at a reasonable price (I infer at even more than a single dollar this would be the prevailing sentiment). Now, a single burger, the basic burger at McDonald’s, weighs 3.5 ounces before they start to cook it (I guess that would make it close to a 1/5-pounder; but assuming a similar nominal fat content of at least 25 or 26 percent, what ends up between the halves of the bun is likely around three ounces or less). If they can sell two of these, with the fixings (mustard, ketchup, relish, maybe some other things; my notes have gone missing, and my nausea is keeping me from checking), that means McDonald’s contrives to sell to the public at a cost of $2.29 a pound (before cooking) 100% beef products…

Likely there’s hamburger for sale at retail at reputable super market chains for under that price. Who knows where that comes from, any more than they know where the McDonald’s products, which are shipped frozen, incidentally, derive.

In an economy that is making the middle class vanish, and driving people formerly aspiring of middle class status to find cheaper and cheaper ways of feeding themselves, and with less and less money in the budget to check on the safety of the food that is allowed to be sold to the consuming public, we are getting our beef fix satisfied for less and less money.

I don’t know that you need the implications of that spelled out. But I would guess a lot more hot winds blow from Washington because people are still smoking pot (the price of which blows, pardon the pun, the purchasing power of the dollar all to hell, by many multiples of the cost of a pack of Parliaments, and certainly of the cost of a burger at McDonald’s) and it’s more powerful than it was in the days when Camels were a quarter a pack, and a “lid” (an ounce) of dope was ten bucks.

The burgers aren’t more “powerful.” I doubt they are more flavorful. And I don’t doubt at all they are more deadly. And I have no idea what price we should put on that. Whatever it is, it’s way too high for me.

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