Gifting Weapons To Enemies

“Hannah,” a local High School junior, graced me with a private recitation of her wonderful FFA Area Competition speech recently.  I’m proud of her hard work and effort.  She is truly an “agvocate.”

In helping her to prepare, though, I discovered another example of how enemies of animal agriculture use our own goodness to defeat us.  We gift additional weapons to our foes without realizing we are doing it.  They smile at our naiveté.

Hannah introduced her topic by raving about the flavor and sizzle of beef, and about how nutrient-dense and safe beef is.

That led into the “meat” of her talk:  what producers, processors and retailers/consumers can do to minimize E. coli contamination.

There are various strains of E. coli, which occurs naturally in most animals' stomachs.

There are various strains of E. coli, which occurs naturally in most animals’ stomachs.

When I asked her in the Q&A session if she thought other pathogens should be tested for at the packing plant, her immediate answer was, “Sure, if it makes our consumers safer, we should do everything we can!”

But at what cost?  What additional protection do consumers really get, and what is the additional cost of that marginal protection?  What if, in attempting to ensure that there is never again an illness from eating beef, we make beef so expensive that people cannot afford it?  What if we enthusiastically “agree” ourselves out of business?

Present-day beef safety is a fantastic success story!  A perusal of the U.S.’s Center for Disease Control (CDC)’s E. coli homepage reveals that organic spinach, raw clover sprouts, romaine lettuce, frozen food products, German raw sprouts, Lebanon Bologna and in-shell hazelnuts have been the sources of every E.coli outbreak for the last three-plus years.  Beef doesn’t even get a mention!

That doesn’t mean that recalls of meat have not been issued.  They have — at great cost to the packing plant or retailer issuing the recall.  Processors and retailers have significant financial incentive to figure out cost-effective ways of ensuring product safety before that product goes out the door.

Those honest and honorable efforts, however, get hampered by top-down intervention.   Processors are diverted from pursuing technologies and methodologies that truly improve food safety when “industry” or bureaucrats insist that we spend time and money on faux monsters, potential pathogens, and zero tolerance.  Respected food safety leaders speak of introducing testing and controls for pathogens that could cause problems for beef.  Industry leaders, in attempting to show how reasonable and forward-thinking they are, jump at committing the entire industry to the additional costs.  We seem to be insisting upon pricing ourselves out of the marketplace entirely.

Companies do not thrive by sickening or killing their consumers.  Individual companies should compete on the food safety front.  Brands can choose to pay for additional testing and claim the premium in the marketplace.  But additional bureaucratic imposts upon production hamper consumer choice, producer inventiveness…and food safety.

There is no such thing as “zero” in nature, and there is no such thing as “zero risk” in life.  Everything we do every day involves risk, but each risk should be put into perspective.  How does this risk compare to other risks (like traveling on roads!) that I happily take each day?  What are the costs and benefits of eliminating or minimizing the risk?  Who pays for marginal decreases in risk?

The only way to achieve zero food-borne illnesses from beef consumption is to stop eating beef.  Of course, denying yourself the essential nutrients in beef has its own set of challenges.  The only way to achieve zero food-borne illnesses in general is to stop eating in general.  Of course, denying your body of any food has its own set of challenges.

I personally will happily take the almost non-existent risk of severe illness and choose to eat delicious, nutritious beef.  But I will not pay any price for that meat.  In my own self interest, I hope and pray that the “industry solution” cure for food-borne pathogens isn’t worse than the media-sensationalized disease.

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