Rescued turkey

Cargill’s recent recall of nearly 40 million pounds of salmonella-tainted turkey marks the second largest meat recall in American history. How much attention did you pay to the story? Probably not much, considering contaminated meat is a fairly common occurrence—one we don’t like thinking about—especially when we’re inundated with overplayed media coverage of the debt crisis replete with up-to-the-minute breaking news email alerts that are probably clogging your inbox in record numbers. But, the implications of this salmonella crisis are actually on par with our failing economy—if not more severe—glitched by the same oversight and sloppy Band-aid effect that will only stave off the inevitable for a very short while.

According to the Wall Street Journal, “Federal officials said they turned up a dangerous form of salmonella at a Cargill Inc. turkey plant last year, and then four times this year at stores selling the Cargill turkey, but didn’t move for a recall until an outbreak killed one person and sickened 77 others.” Unlike other parts of the developed world, it’s expected by our government that salmonella will be found in a significant percentage of all raw poultry sampled by the USDA. Food Safety News reports: “In the fourth quarter of 2010, 4.2% of turkeys, 9.5% of broiler chickens, 9% of raw ground turkey samples and nearly 23% of raw ground chicken samples analyzed under USDA’s HACCP Verification Testing Program were positive for salmonella.”

These pathogens are becoming harder to prevent and harder to kill, even as new research out of Minnesota shows a potentially effective new weapon against deadly bacteria. You can credit the resilience to a steady diet of antibiotics, genetically modified grains, hormones and slews of other chemicals wreaking havoc on the immune systems of the animals soon to be your dinner, as well as the incredibly fast and unforgiving lines in slaughterhouses where stopping to prevent contamination from spreading can cost a worker her job.

Our flawed system of handling animal products with any real sense of safety (let alone respect or gratitude for the lives so heinously sacrificed) will not change until consumers demand something better. It’s that simple. We can scrub and boil and sanitize workstations, cutlery and the meat itself, but the taint of a poisoned industry runs too deep to clean. Marion Nestle, professor of Nutrition, Food Studies and Public Health at New York University, and the author of Food Politics, Safe Food, What to Eat, and Pet Food Politics, wrote, “the USDA believes it does not have the authority to order recalls for any contaminant except E. coli O157:H7. It has no authority to recall meat contaminated with Salmonella or other toxic forms of E. coli.” That’s right, there’s no accountability for these careless industry standard practices that have killed and left many more for dead, but considering 16 percent of our GDP goes towards health care, it’s no wonder. The government has, in essence, turned its back on the issue. Instead, money is sunk into gimmicks like the “Food Safe Families” campaign, an ineffective slap in the face and skirting of responsibility; but make no mistake, it’s not your unclean cutting board causing these deadly outbreaks. Since Congress is not yet willing to protect us from food poisoning, we’re forced to do it ourselves.

So, what can we do?

1. Stop buying conventionally raised meats. Not sometimes. Not ever. Eat organic, or none at all. That goes for eggs and dairy, too. And the smaller and closer the farm is to you, even better.

2. Let your government officials and big-ag industry know where you stand. Sign petitions, start your own, write letters and attend public hearings wherever you can. Your health depends on it.

3.Go veg. Seriously. Maybe Meatless Monday isn’t enough anymore. Sure, there are risks with all food, so why not just eliminate the biggest risk factor once and for all?

Keep in touch with Jill on Twitter @jillettinger

image: Jill Ettinger