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Newspaper Series Faults Big Beef

Workers trim beef at the Tyson Fresh Meats plant in Dakota City, Neb. The plant employs about 4,000 people.
Keith Myers
The Kansas City Star

What should you know about the beef on your table? The Kansas City Star answered that question with a three-part series on the beef industry.

Harvest Public Media reporters also contributed to The Star’s efforts.

As part of Harvest Public Media’s series America’s Big Beef: An Industry in Transition, Harvest Public Media’s Donna Vestal spoke with Star reporter Mike McGraw about what he uncovered in his 12-month investigation.

Donna Vestal: What are the big findings in this three-part series?

Mike McGraw: Day one is all about basically the beef industry today, who runs it, how it’s basically dominated by four major packers.

One of the things we write a lot about on the Sunday story is mechanically tenderized meat, which is not now labeled as mechanically tenderized meat.

The problem there is that when these companies use blades and needles to tenderize this meat before it gets to us, you can push pathogens that are on the surface of that meat into the inside of the meat.

So, most of us don’t like to eat a well-done steak. Most of us like medium or medium rare. But if you cook a mechanically tenderized steak at medium or medium rare and it’s still pink in the middle, you could find inside the interior of that meat what some scientists called “fortuitous survivors,” pathogens that survive in the interior of that meat because it isn’t uniformly cooked all the way across when we get medium rare.

And like some of the victims we interviewed for the story….One lady ended up with a colostomy bag. Another young girl might have to have a new kidney before it’s all over. One 62-year-old fellow is no longer with us. He died.

The Monday stories are about how to what degree the livestock industry – particularly the cattle industry -- contributes to a serious problem worldwide called antibiotic resistance.

And then the third day is about health and nutrition and how beef gets its messages out.

You spent 12 months researching this industry. Why did it take so long?

The beef industry today is a very complex industry. And I needed to learn as much as I possibly could about how cattle are raised, how cattle are fed for slaughter, how they are processed once they go to these large processing plants that are all over the Midwest.   And then we had to pick and choose what areas are we going to take a harder look at.

I understand you were in some of those processing plants. Can you tell me about that? That’s pretty rare for a journalist, isn’t it?

Somewhat. Only some of the processors are trying to be more transparent in recent years.

We primarily looked at the largest big four beef packers. They are Cargill, Tyson. And the other two are JBS and National Beef, which is based in Kansas City.

Those four packers process 87 percent of all the heifers and steers that are made into beef today in the United States. Two of those companies – Cargill and Tyson – allowed me into their plants with some restrictions.

What was that experience like?

Well, to me it was fascinating. I mean I’m a reporter and I’m curious and I love to see how things are built or, in this case, un-built. This is like an auto plant in reverse. These plants are huge. They process as many as six, seven thousand head of cattle a day.

But do you think people really want to know what happens on the kill floor?

Some people probably don’t want to know.

I still eat beef. The tours still haven’t changed my eating practices. I still like hamburger. I still like steaks. And I think all that meat in moderation probably isn’t so bad for you.

The beef industry has had a tough year. Is this just one more body blow to them, this discussion?

I was very, very careful to try to balance it. I told these folks early on please cooperate with me and teach me about the industry and in return you will have a chance to respond to the things that affect you.

I’ve tried very hard to be balanced and let them respond to things that they may not like.  

I think their reaction will vary from gee, I’m sorry I talked to you to you know, I think you balanced it out even though I don’t like what you put in your stories.

Do you have any advice or warning for consumers?

I would say that everything in moderation is good. You don’t want to eat too much beef with a lot of fat in it. But I’d say the bigger issue is pay attention to labels. Start reading labels. Consumers in this country have a tendency, apparently according to some research, not to read labels very well.

I’d say my biggest warning is, as much as we like steaks that are medium and medium rare, be careful cooking it that way especially if you can determine whether it’s been bladed or not.

Now, the U.S. Department of Agriculture is proposing a label for these cuts. We don’t know what’s going to happen with that proposal. It could come out. It could be required labeling for that meat. It could go away. We just don’t know yet.

Thanks, Mike for taking the time to come by and talk.

Happy to do it.

Harvest Public Media is a collaboration between KCUR and other public media stations around the Midwest that covers issues related to food and food production . Click here to see more from America’s Big Beef: An Industry in Transition.

Donna Vestal is the Managing Director of America Amplified: Election 2020.
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