"There’s shit in the meat," declared a harried fast-food exec in the Richard Linklater / Eric Schlosser film Fast Food Nation.

Well, yes, there is — and more this year than in past years, judging from the number of recalls of beef tainted with the deadly E. coli strain 0157.

In an article in yesterday’s New York Times, Andrew Martin reports that the USDA has had occasion to issue 20 such recalls this year — "one recall shy of a record set in 2000 and matched in 2002." Worse, recalls are up sharply from six in 2005 and eight in 2006. What’s going on?

According to the Times, no one has the faintest clue:

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

No one knows for sure what is causing the jump in recalls, though theories abound, from the cyclical nature of pathogens to changes in cattle-feeding practices caused by the popularity of ethanol.

To fight the mysterious scourge of E. coli 0157, the industry spends "upwards of $350 million a year," Martin reports. Yet, "even as expenditures keep rising, the industry appears to be losing ground."

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

The article describes the elaborate industrial processes in use to minimize infection risk: meat is subjected to steam, boiling water, disinfectants, and a "mild acid wash."

Interestingly, the battle against E. coli 0157 is spurring consolidation. Smaller facilities can’t keep up with the Tysons and Cargills of the world when it comes to disinfectant equipment; nor can they absorb the costs of recalls as easily. Mid-sized processor Topps Meat of New Jersey recently went out of business after having to recall 21.7 million pounds, Martin notes.

For now, the meat giants focus on sterilizing carcasses. Down the road, they’re looking to the pharmaceutical industry for answers:

[T]he meat industry is experimenting with vaccines, antibiotics, and feed additives that may reduce the level of E. coli 0157:H7 in cattle intestines.

Hmm. I have a better idea. E. coli 0157:H7 can’t thrive in cows that feed primarily on grass. So end the confinements and raise animals outside, replacing as much of their current rations with grass as possible.

That would detoxify the shit; but how to keep it out of the meat? Let’s try deindustrializing the slaughterhouses. Instead of a few enormous ones, why not have hundreds of small and mid-sized ones all across the country?

And I’d wager that in these human-scale facilities, if humane conditions for workers were enforced along with living wages, a lot less shit would be getting dumped into the meat supply. Currently, slaughterhouse workers are subjected to conditions little changed from Upton Sinclair‘s day.

Forced to work at breakneck speed with sharp objects slicing all around them, workers in slaughterhouses battle just to keep their own bodies intact. Is it really such a mystery why so much shit slips through?

True enough, in the scenario I describe, there would be no more $1 double cheeseburgers — but the meat we would get to enjoy on occasion would be healthy and delicious, not flavorless and downright dangerous.