Fast-food fright

A 1997 undercover investigation by KCBS-TV in Los Angeles videotaped local restaurant workers sneezing into their hands while processing food, licking salad dressing off their fingers, picking their noses, and flicking their cigarettes into meals about to be served.

The Globe and Mail
February 24, 2001

Fast-food fright
In his explosive new book, Fast Food Nation, U.S. investigative reporter Eric Schlosser exposes some of the horrors that may be lurking in that hamburger

In the early years of the 20th century, hamburgers had a bad reputation. According to the historian David Gerard Hogan, the hamburger was considered “a food for the poor,” tainted and unsafe to eat. Restaurants rarely served hamburgers; they were sold at lunch carts parked near factories, at circuses, carnivals and state fairs. Ground beef, it was widely believed, was made from old, putrid meat heavily laced with chemical preservatives. “The hamburger habit is just about as safe,” one food critic warned, “as getting your meat out of a garbage can.” While Castle, the nation’s first hamburger chain, worked hard in the 1920s to dispel the hamburger’s tawdry image. As Hogan notes in his history of the chain, Selling ‘Em by the Sack (1997), the founders of White Castle placed their grills in direct view of customers, claimed that fresh ground beef was delivered twice a day, chose a name with connotations of purity, and even sponsored an experiment at the University of Minnesota in which a medical student lived for 13 weeks on “nothing but White Castle hamburgers and water.”

The success of White Castle in the East and the Midwest helped to popularize hamburgers and to remove much of their social stigma. The chain did not attract a broad range of people, however. During the 1950s, the rise of drive-ins and fast-food restaurants in southern California helped turn the once lowly hamburger into America’s national dish. [McDonald’s franchise founder] Ray Kroc’s decision to promote McDonald’s as a restaurant chain for families had a profound impact on the nation’s eating habits. Hamburgers seemed an ideal food for small children – convenient, inexpensive, handheld, and easy to chew…

The Landmark outbreak
In January of 1993, doctors at a hospital in Seattle, Wash., noticed that an unusual number of children were being admitted with bloody diarrhea. Some were suffering from hemolytic uremic syndrome, a previously rare disorder that causes kidney damage. Health officials swoon traced the outbreak of food poisoning to undercooked hamburgers served at local Jack in the Box restaurants. Tests of the hamburger patties disclose the presence of E. coli 0157:H7. Jack in the Box issued an immediate recall of the contaminated ground beef, which had been supplied by the Vons Companies, Inc., in Arcadia Calif. Nevertheless, more than 700 people in at least four states were sickened by Jack in the Box hamburgers, more than 200 people were hospitalized, and four died. Most of the victims were children.

Filthy Feedlots
Some herds of American cattle may have been infected with E. coli 0157:H7 decades ago. But the recent changes in how cattle are raised, slaughtered and processed have created an ideal means for the pathogen to spread. The problem begins in today’s vast feedlots. A [U.S.] government health official, who prefers not to be named, compared the sanitary conditions in a modern feedlot to those in a crowded European city during the Middle Ages, when people dumped their chamber pots out the window, and epidemics raged. The cattle now packed into feedlots get little exercise and live amid pools of manure. “You shouldn’t ear dirty food and dirty water,” the official told me. “But we still think we can give animals dirty food and dirty water,” Feedlots have become an extremely efficient mechanism for “recirculating the manure,” which is unfortunate, since E. coli 1057:H7 can replicate in cattle troughs and survive in manure for up to 90 days.

Gruesome ground beef
The pathogens from infected cattle are spread not only in feedlots, but also at slaughterhouses and hamburger grinders. The slaughterhouse tasks most likely to contaminate meat are the removal of the animal’s hide and the removal of its digestive system. The hides are not pulled off by machine; if a hide has been inadequately cleaned, chunks of dirt and manure may fall from it onto the meat. Stomachs and intestines are still pulled out of cattle by hand; if the job is not performed carefully, the contents of the digestive system may spill everywhere. The increased speed of today’s production lines makes the task much more difficult. A single worker at a “gut table” may eviscerate 60 cattle an hour. Performing the job properly takes a fair amount of skill. A former IBP [Iowa Beef Packers] “gutter” told me that it took him six months to learn how to pull out the stomach and tie off the intestines without spillage. At best, he could gut 200 consecutive cattle without spilling anything. Inexperienced gutters spill manure far more often. At the IBP slaughterhouse in Lexington, Neb., the hourly spillage rate at the gut table has run as high as 20 per cent, with stomach contents splattering one out of five carcasses.

The consequences of a single error are quickly multiplied as hundreds of carcasses quickly move down the line. Knives are supposed to be cleaned and disinfected every few minutes, something that workers in a hurry tend to forget. A contaminated knife spreads germs to everything it touches. The overworked, often illiterate workers in [U.S.] slaughterhouses do not always understand the importance of good hygiene. They sometimes forget that this meat will eventually be eaten. They drop meat on the floor and then place it right back on the conveyor belt. They cook bit-sized pieces of meet in their sterilizers, as snacks, thereby rendering the sterilizers ineffective. They are directly exposed to a wide variety of pathogens in the meat, become infected and inadvertently spread disease.

Anything but the kitchen sink
Anyone who brings raw ground beef into his or her kitchen today must regard it as a potential biohazard, one that may carry an extremely dangerous microbe, infectious at an extremely low dose. The current high levels of ground beef contamination, combined with the even higher levels of poultry contamination, have led to some bizarre findings. A series of test conducted by Charles Gerba, a microbiologist at the University of Arizona, discovered far more fecal bacteria in the average American kitchen sink than on the average American toilet seat. According to Gerba, “You’d be better off eating a carrot stick that fell in your toilet than one that fell in your sink.”

Restaurant Horrors
No matter how well executed the HACCP plan [Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points, a food-safety philosophy that the U.S. national Academy of Sciences had promoted for years, focusing on prevention and microbial testing in the food production chain], no matter how highly automated the grills, no matter how many burst of gamma radiation are fired at the meat, the safely of the food at any restaurant ultimately depends upon the workers in the kitchen. Dr. Patricia Griffin, one of the Centres for Disease Control’s leading experts on E. coli 0157:H7, believes that food-safety classes should be mandatory for fast-food workers. “We place our lives in their hands,” she says, “in the same way we entrust our lives to the training of airline pilots.” Griffin worries that a low-paid, unskilled work force composed of teenagers and recent immigrants may not always be familiar with proper food-handling procedures.

Dr. Griffin has good reason to worry. A 1997 undercover investigation by KCBS-TV in Los Angeles videotaped local restaurant workers sneezing into their hands while processing food, licking salad dressing off their fingers, picking their noses, and flicking their cigarettes into meals about to be served. In May of 2000, three teenaged employees at a Burger King in Scottsville, N.Y., were arrested for putting spit, urine and cleaning products such as Easy-Off Oven Cleaner and Comet with Bleach into the food. They had allegedly tampered with the Burger King food for eight months, and it was served to thousands of customers, until a fellow employee informed the management.

The teenaged fast-food workers I met in Colorado Springs, Colo., told me other horror stories. The safety of the food seemed to be determined more by the personality of the manager on duty than by the written policies of the chain. Many workers would not eat anything at their restaurant unless they’d made it themselves. A Taco Bell employee said that food dropped on the floor was often picked up and served. An Arby’s employee told me that one kitchen worker never washed his hands at work after doing engine repairs on this car. And several employees at the same [well-known fast-food] restaurant in Colorado Springs independently provided details about a cockroach infestation in the milk-shake machine and about armies of mice that urinated and defecated on hamburger rolls left out to thaw in the kitchen every night.

From the book Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser. Copyright 2001 by Eric Schlosser. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.


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