What The Star found is an increasingly concentrated industry that mass-produces beef at high speeds in mega-factories that dot the Midwest, where Kansas City serves as the buckle of the beef belt. Its a factory food process churning out cheaper, and some say tougher cuts of meat that can lead to illness and death. The Stars other key findings:
Large beef plants, based on volume alone, contribute disproportionately to the incidence of meat-borne pathogens.
Big Beef and other processors are co-mingling ground beef from many different cattle, some from outside the United States, adding to the difficulty for health officials to track contaminated products to their source. The industry also has resisted labeling some products, including mechanically tenderized meat, to warn consumers and restaurants to cook it thoroughly.
Big Beef is injecting billions of dollars of growth hormones and antibiotics into cattle, partly to fatten them quickly for market. But many experts believe that years of overuse and misuse of such drugs contributes to antibiotic-resistant pathogens in humans, meaning illnesses once treated with a regimen of antibiotics are much harder to control.
Big Beef is using its political pull, public relations campaigns and the supportive science it sponsors to influence federal dietary guidelines and recast steaks and burgers as health foods people can eat every day. It even persuaded the American Heart Association to certify beef as heart healthy.
Big Beef, industry critics contend, has grown too big for Big Government to lasso.
Indeed, the U.S. beef industry is twice as concentrated as it was when President Teddy Roosevelt took on and beat the old Armour, Swift, Cudahy and Morris beef trust in the early 1900s.
Roosevelt, remarked Montana rancher Dan Teigen, would be spinning in his saddle.
Thanks in large part to the Midwests grassy plains and ample row crops, the United States produces 26 billion pounds of beef a year from 34 million cattle more than any other country.
Four of the seven largest beef slaughterhouses each capable of killing 6,000 head a day are in Kansas, which leads the nation in meat processing.
The big slaughterhouses are among the last vestiges of old-line American manufacturing, except that they take things apart instead of putting them together. Meat slaughter and processing employs 260,000 people, and Big Beefs highly efficient plants supply a large share of those jobs in the Midwest.
As a result, despite recent price hikes, beef costs less in the United States than anywhere in the world. It has become Americas crude oil in high demand worldwide, including faraway lands where a newly minted middle class is acquiring a taste for more expensive protein.
But some independent ranchers, members of Congress and food safety advocates question the wisdom of processing so much beef at such speeds, arguing that factory food is more likely to trigger pathogen outbreaks.
Their reasoning: When processing speed and volumes rise, so do the chances for contamination to be introduced and spread widely from its source to other meat inside the plant and at other plants that process it further. In fact, most of the lawsuits that Seattle attorney Bill Marler has filed against the meat industry winning a total of $250 million in judgments on behalf of children who suffered kidney failure by eating bad hamburger were against big packing plants, where he said the problem begins.