A Good Food-Safety Investigation from the Times

Credit is due the Times and veteran investigative reporter Michael Moss for a painstaking and stomach-turning account yesterday of the nation’s hamburger supply chain and compromised food safety regime.

This is an old-fashioned, time-consuming newspaper investigation, of, it must be said, a distinctly American pedigree. This kind of reporting is a main reason why we need big news organizations to survive and thrive. It’s also a reminder of why we here at The Audit are concerned about the creeping Anglo-Australian influence on U.S. business journalism. The Brits may do many things well; business investigations are not among them.

That’s too bad, because the Times offers a compelling read with excellent mini-gets and scooplets throughout. My personal favorite: Tyson Foods won’t sell to Costco because the retailer insists on testing the meat it buys.

Costco said it had found E. coli in foreign and domestic beef trimmings and pressured suppliers to fix the problem. But even Costco, with its huge buying power, said it had met resistance from some big slaughterhouses. “Tyson will not supply us,” Mr. Wilson said. “They don’t want us to test.”

Tyson issues a non-denial that is telling:

A Tyson spokesman, Gary Mickelson, would not respond to Costco’s accusation, but said, “We do not and cannot” prohibit grinders from testing ingredients. He added that since Tyson tests samples of its trimmings, “we don’t believe secondary testing by grinders is a necessity.”

Why in the world would you discourage another layer of tests?

Indeed, the Times reveals that the entire food-chain is governed by an informal code of omerta: beef suppliers do not sell to grinders who test their meat. This, again, is telling.

I won’t recount it chapter and verse, but there are a few notable things here. One is the simple, well-ordered structure. The Times does not try to reinvent the wheel. It starts with an anecdote—and a very compelling one—about 22-year-old children’s dance instructor, who, ironically, was mostly a vegetarian but is now paralyzed from the waist down from a bad burger cooked by her mom in 2007. The story then traces the meat back to its multiple sources, including to Uruguay; a U.S. company, Beef Products Inc., that treats beef with ammonia to wash off the ick; and Greater Omaha Packing, where meat flies by so fast trimmers say they can keep up only if they don’t spot problems (i.e., doo doo on the meat). If they do stop the line they risk being reassigned, putting pressure on the others:

To protest one such episode, the employees said, dozens of workers walked off the job for a few hours earlier this year. Last year, workers sued Greater Omaha, alleging that they were not paid for the time they need to clean contaminants off their knives and other gear before and after their shifts. The company is contesting the lawsuit.

Also front and center is Cargill, which made the frozen patties and which was found by the Times not to have inspected the beef until after it had been ground, making it impossible to trace the E. coli to the source. Here’s a good document:

“Our finished ground products typically contain raw materials from numerous suppliers,” Dr. Angela Siemens, the technical services vice president for Cargill’s meat division, wrote to the U.S.D.A. “Consequently, it is not possible to implicate a specific supplier without first observing a pattern of potential contamination.”

Finally, I like how the Times shows how regulators help industry keep its dangerous practices secret:

The meat industry treats much of its practices and the ingredients in ground beef as trade secrets. While the Department of Agriculture has inspectors posted in plants and has access to production records, it also guards those secrets. Federal records released by the department through the Freedom of Information Act blacked out details of Cargill’s grinding operation that could be learned only through copies of the documents obtained from other sources. Those documents illustrate the restrained approach to enforcement by a department whose missions include ensuring meat safety and promoting agriculture markets.

The piece eventually returns to the victim to help put a face on the issue.

A couple technical notes. It’s worth pointing out that the Times writing here is not hamstrung by arbitrary and overly restrictive style rules including a ban on the word “but,” that cramp the writing in Bloomberg’s long investigations. I counted 17 “buts” in the Times story. It’s fine.

Also, there is nothing fancy here. The story is based on government documents, some obtained via Freedom of Information Act requests, lawsuits, and many interviews, including some with fired employees—the usual. The story is not based on anonymous sources. The point is, all of that material takes time to gather.

This is not a Gawker post. I’m just saying.

On the downside, better context is needed. A graphic says 70,000 people get sick a year, most not seriously. Is that good or bad, and compared to what? It seems like a significant omission.

At the same time, this story, at 4,800 words, is too long. Another write-through would have tightened it considerably, I have no doubt. Less is more. Don’t give anti-long-form-investigations forces any ammunition, I say.

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Dean Starkman Dean Starkman runs The Audit, CJR's business section, and is the author of The Watchdog That Didn't Bark: The Financial Crisis and the Disappearance of Investigative Journalism (Columbia University Press, January 2014). Follow Dean on Twitter: @deanstarkman.