hamburger on a bun with a bite taken out

Another Reason to End the ‘Dirty Dairy’ Industry: Contaminated Hamburgers

October 11, 2018 | Katherine Paul

Organic Consumers Association

The world’s largest meat packer, JBS Tolleson, is recalling nearly 7 million pounds of beef after an investigation identified JBS as the common supplier of ground beef products sold to people who developed Salmonella Newport, a disease that causes fever and diarrhea, weakness, dyspnea and, potentially, sudden death.

As of October 4, 57 people in 16 states had been sickened by JBS beef.

If that’s not enough to make you swear off industrial factory farm beef, here’s more food for thought: There’s a good chance the JBS beef was contaminated because it contained a combination of cattle raised for beef, and dairy cows sent off for slaughter because they were too sick to produce milk.

According to an article published this week in New Food Economy, scientists have known since the 1980s that dairy cows are a primary reservoir of Salmonella Newport. The authors say the facts point to an “ongoing food safety crisis hidden in plain sight.”

One way to address that crisis? End industrial dairy farming which creates the conditions that make cows susceptible to a host of painful and debilitating illnesses, including Salmonella Newport.

Industrial dairy—bad for the farmers, bad for the environment, bad for you

The dairy industry has been in trouble for a long while. It isn’t working for farmers, who are faced with spending $22-$25 to produce a hundred pounds of milk that their buyers pay only $15 for. It’s so bad, some dairy farmers are committing suicide.

Industrial dairy production is a nightmare for the environment, too. Acres and acres of GMO crops grown to feed dairy cows foul waterways and destroy soil health.

In Vermont’s Franklin County, for example, 36,000 cows are creating a waste stream equivalent to that of nearly 6 million people, reports Regeneration Vermont. None of that waste is treated, and all of it is spread across Vermont fields, “thickly and quickly, before the giant manure pits spill over.”

Industrial dairy farming isn’t doing the general public any favors, either—polluted waters are a public health problem. And dairy products produced by farms that feed GMO crops and use pesticides and antibiotics aren’t the best choice for health-conscious consumers. That’s partly why we sued Ben & Jerry’s, whose ice cream tested positive for Monsanto’s Roundup weedkiller.

But what about the cows?

If the industrial factory farm dairy model isn’t good for farmers, the environment or consumers, it’s even worse for the cows it depends on.

In an article he wrote last year, Michael Colby, co-founder of Regeneration Vermont wrote that “the story of the industrial dairy cow “isn’t pretty.” Cobly writes:

It all begins with dairy farm economics. The more milk produced, the bigger the glut and the lower the prices. But the lower the prices, the more milk the farmer needs to produce to try and make money. And around and around it goes, with the dairy cow taking the brunt of the push to produce more and more milk.

That leads us back to the JBS beef recall. New Food Economy reports that dairy cow meat makes up about 20 percent of the ground beef market. Because dairy farmers can’t afford to keep a non- or under-producing cow in their dairy herd, they sell them for meat—mostly ground beef, because the meat isn’t good enough for other cuts.

How sick are those cows? Colby writes:

Dairy cow health is becoming a major issue for the industry, giving rise to extra costs associated with replacing the burned out cows and concerns about meat containing residues of the increased medications being used. A recent Cornell University study found that mortality rates in U.S. dairy herds was over 10 percent a year. That means one out of every 10 cows in a herd is prematurely dying every year. In 2002, the dairy mortality rate was 3.8 percent. Something’s seriously wrong in the dairy barn.

Weakened from living under unhealthy, filthy, stressful conditions, many of those cows, destined for hamburger meat, become sick with Salmonella Newport. New Food Economy reports that “experts seem to agree that whenever Salmonella Newport turns up in ground beef—the exact scenario that lead to last week’s recall—dairy cows tend to be the culprit.”

The author of the article said he couldn’t find a reference to a Salmonella Newport outbreak linked to ground beef that didn’t originate with dairy cows.

Surely there are regulations to prevent this sort of thing? Apparently not. As New Food Economy reports:

According to USDA rules, Salmonella doesn’t even qualify as an “adulterant” in meat. That means processors aren’t required to test for it. And if it does show up, it doesn’t mean they’re doing anything wrong—technically or legally.

What can consumers do?

First, if you think you might have purchased contaminated JBS ground beef anytime in mid-July through the end of September—maybe you stored it in your freezer?—Consumer Reports says don’t eat it, at least for now.

The best way to avoid buying contaminated ground beef in the future? Shop for organic 100% grass-fed beef. This article explains why grass-fed beef is better for your health, and where to buy it.

If you really want to help prevent Salmonella Newport outbreaks, support organic regenerative dairy, not industrial dairy farms.

And help us pressure companies like Ben & Jerry’s to go organic, by signing this petition.

Katherine Paul is associate director of the Organic Consumers Association (OCA), a 501 (c) (3) nonprofit grassroots consumer advocacy organization. To keep up with OCA news and alerts, sign up for our newsletter.