Friday, February 29, 2008

Visualizing 143,000,000 pounds of ground beef

When we talked earlier this week about the largest food recall in US history -- that of 143 million pounds of ground beef from Westland/Hallmark in southern California -- my focus was on the true cost of food. But here's another thing to consider. If most of this beef hadn't already been served up at fast food restaurants and school lunch programs all around the US, the task of recalling it would be monumentally expensive. A big recall has already put one processor out of business in recent months.

But anyway, let's consider the logistics of recalling 143,000,000 pounds -- or 71,500 tons -- of ground beef. A semi-trailer can carry a load of about 45,000 pounds, or 22.5 tons. If we assumed that the entire cargo of a semi was just ground beef -- that is, no packaging, pallets, etc. it would take 3,178 semis to carry the beef. A typical truck and trailer is about 70 feet long, so if you lined them up bumper to dock lock, you'd have a string of trucks a little more than 42 miles long.

Of course, the hamburger was shipped in 40 and 50-pound cartons on pallets, so figure that there'd be another 15 to 20 percent of packaging weight, and add that to the line and you start to get a line of semis about 50 miles long.

And I don't know enough about logistics and shipping to know whether ground beef in boxes on skids is a cargo that can use up a truck's weight limit before running out of space.

But we don't really need to worry about a 50-mile long string of tractor-trailers pulling up to the Westland/Hallmark plant because, after all, most of the meat that was recalled has already been eaten.

But clearly the logistics have become an issue. In an interview on Vermont Public Radio last week, the director of food service for the Ferrisburg Public Schools said she was still awaiting instructions on what to do with the cases of beef that have been sitting in her freezers on hold since Jan. 31, when the USDA first issued a warning against using the beef.

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