Food regulators recently uncovered horsemeat masquerading as beef in Burger Kings, school cafeterias, and hospitals across Europe and the UK, prompting multiple product recalls and widespread horror. The horsemeat scandal has not touched the US, and many experts and journalists have rushed to reassure Americans that their burgers are safe from horse contamination. But compared to the dangerous pathogens hiding in US-produced meat, Americans might want to consider replacing their beef patties with European horsemeat.
The debacle has exposed weaknesses in the EU’s food safety procedures. However, horsemeat poses a negligible health risk. There have been no reported deaths or illnesses caused by this contamination. Though a harmful horse painkiller called bute was found in 8 of the 206 horses, a human would have to eat more than 500 burgers made entirely of horsemeat to ingest a human dose.
On the other side of the Atlantic, the average American consumes roughly 270 pounds of meat per year, and it’s unlikely that horsemeat is in the mix. There is, however, plenty of evidence that many Americans are inadvertently eating a side of deadly bacteria like salmonella or e. coli with their burgers. According to Center for Disease Control estimates, 48 million Americans get sick, 128,000 are hospitalized, and 3,000 die from foodborne illnesses every year. In comparison, the entire European Union had roughly 45,000 illnesses and 32 deaths from contaminated food in 2008. That means foodborne illness strikes 15 percent of Americans each year, but only .00009 percent of Europeans.
American meat also often exceeds levels of contamination considered unacceptable in most of the developed world. Mexico refused a shipment of American beef in 2008 because it exceeded Mexico’s upper regulatory limit for copper contamination. Because the US has no such restrictions, the beef returned to the US to be sold to Americans instead.
The most common culprits behind foodborne illness are salmonella, norovirus, Campylobacter, toxoplasma gondii, and E. coli 0157, which are carried through feces. These pathogens have also been discovered in some fruit and vegetables that have soaked up infected waste runoff from nearby factory farms. But food safety regulators continue to avert their eyes when confronted with the appalling conditions in which the vast majority of American meat is produced. The New York Times highlighted the regulatory failure after a 2007 e. coli outbreak:
Within weeks of the Cargill outbreak in 2007, U.S.D.A. officials swept across the country, conducting spot checks at 224 meat plants to assess their efforts to combat E. coli. Although inspectors had been monitoring these plants all along, officials found serious problems at 55 that were failing to follow their own safety plans. [...] In the weeks before [an e. coli outbreak], federal inspectors had repeatedly found that Cargill was violating its own safety procedures in handling ground beef, but they imposed no fines or sanctions, records show. After the outbreak, the department threatened to withhold the seal of approval that declares “U.S. Inspected and Passed by the Department of Agriculture.”
The USDA is not the only agency that has dropped the regulatory ball. The Environmental Protection Agency recently abandoned an effort that would require factory farms to report basic information, such as their location, number of animals, and the amount of manure they discharge. Congress would go even further; the stalled House Farm Bill included provisions banning all state regulation of nearly any agricultural product. The fast-approaching sequester cuts will also eliminate roughly 600 food inspector positions at meat and poultry plants.
Several states have also passed “ag gag laws” to criminalize whistleblowers who secretly film inside facilities or take a job under false pretenses. These laws became popular after a Humane Society video documented a California slaughterhouse routinely abusing and killing sick cattle in 2008. The video triggered the largest beef recall in US history and resulted in a $500 million settlement, the largest penalty ever awarded for an animal abuse case. In response to the video, President Obama also banned the slaughter of these so-called “downer” cows, which have an increased risk of contracting mad cow disease and bacterial infections like e. coli. He did, however, lift the ban on horsemeat in the US last year.